Clinical placements

Coping with the death of a patient for the first time

The emotional toll of caring for a patient at the end of life taught nursing student Garritt Brown that it is okay to ask for help.

The emotional toll of caring for a patient at the end of life taught nursing student Garritt Brown that it is okay to ask for help

Caring for a patient at the end of their life can be an emotional experience. Picture: Alamy

During my clinical placement in a hospice in my first year of training, a patient with bowel cancer was admitted. 

The patient, who I will call John, had been admitted for symptom control, but his condition soon started to deteriorate and after a couple of weeks he was put on an end of life care plan. 

I started to build up a therapeutic relationship with John from the moment he was admitted. I attended all his doctors’ rounds and multidisciplinary meetings and assisted with his personal care. 

Traumatic experience 

After the end of life care plan was introduced, I spent a lot of time with John. I focused on providing patient-centred care, ensuring his needs were met and he was comfortable and free of pain. John would sometimes become agitated, so I reported any concerns to my mentor. 

When John was in the last stages of his life, I sat by his bedside and held his hand, provided mouth care when he needed it, and reassured him that he was not alone. It was a privilege to sit with him at the end of his life.

This was an emotional and difficult experience for me. As a first-year student, I had little experience of palliative care settings and had never cared for a patient at the end of their life before. 

Having developed a strong therapeutic relationship with John, I found it difficult that he was not going to live. I also felt a bit out of my depth; although we are taught about death and dying, when you experience this for the first time in practice, it can be traumatic. 

On reflection, I should have asked other staff members to also sit with John as he approached the end, rather than taking on so much myself.

Lesson learned 

When I spoke to my mentor and other staff, it was evident they were concerned, and they offered emotional support. They told me where I could go for counselling if necessary, and said they were there for me, which made me feel valued as a nursing student. 

The lesson I learned from this was to communicate better with other staff members. I developed more awareness about my own psychological well-being and learned that it is okay to speak about your emotions. We are only human, after all. 

The emotional toll of caring for John made me realise how essential it is to seek help and support when needed. Although this experience was hard for me, I am glad I was there for John, whose warm and witty personality shone through right until the end. 

I am also glad that this did not discourage me from palliative care nursing, and am currently working part-time in a hospice as a healthcare assistant. 

Garritt BrownGarritt Brown is a third-year nursing student at the University of Hertfordshire 


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