My first patient death: the lessons I learned

One year on from her first patient death, Michelle McKay discusses the benefits of a good support network

Newly qualified, experiencing her first death was sudden for Michelle McKay. After almost a year, Ms McKay discusses who and what helped her overcome the traumatic situation 

I’d been qualified for about three months when it happened. As a nursing student I had somehow been deluded to thinking that children in hospital never die unexpectedly. I thought that the first death that I would experience would be of a patient receiving specific end of life care, or one who presented at the hospital as very sick already.

Everybody deals with grief differently. Picture: iStock

So, when it happened unexpectedly, to a patient on my watch, I was not prepared for it. The shock and trauma of the situation hit me like a speeding train. If I had somehow imagined that I would find myself facing those feelings back when I was a student I think I would have seriously considered hanging up my white tunic.

But, it is coming up to a year since the event and I am still nursing – with an even deeper love and respect for the profession than ever before. So, what helped?

Three attributing effects

There are three main things I can attribute to this. First, my colleagues. Some knew exactly how I was feeling and ensured I was okay. They would also be alert to not talking about it when I was around, protecting me from it and respecting the fact that I would get upset. Many of them would send me supportive and kind text messages which I valued immensely. I am eternally grateful to the team I work with.

Second, getting back to work as soon as possible. I realise this is not the solution for everybody, and I fully support colleagues who need to take time off after a stressful event – but for me, going back to work and getting ‘back on the bike’ was cathartic.

Third, counselling. My ward manager recognised that I needed some help and referred me to our trust’s counsellor. She helped me understand that what had happened was a traumatic event, and it was okay for me to acknowledge the effect it had. She also helped me to understand that I was experiencing a type of grieving.

I did not want to acknowledge this at first, because I felt like by doing so I would be encroaching on the family’s territory – wrongly believing that grief is a privilege that only the family is entitled to. The practical side of ‘how to cope’ appealed to me and I am in awe of how this person from a parallel healthcare profession helped.

'I am more aware than ever before of the fragility of life'

It would be wrong to say this event has not changed me as a nurse. I am more aware than ever before of the fragility of life. At first that awareness put me on edge, but now I am starting to see it as a way to appreciate the good days, especially in the lives of children with complex needs.

I am also acutely aware of how valuable having supportive working relationships can be. I hope that I am the type of colleague that contributes to a supportive and compassionate working environment. This event shook me up and changed me – and I will carry it always – but I am still standing and, if anything, I am stronger than before as a children’s nurse and a human being.

About the author

Michelle McKay is a staff nurse. Name of the NHS trust is withheld at the author’s request


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