Talking about death and dying: COVID-19 has taught us not to wait

Help nursing colleagues and teams cope with grief by signposting to information and support

Image of a female medic holding her hands to her face in distress, with images of comforting hands above and below her
Picture: Annette Taylor-Anderson

Within the London nursing service at Marie Curie we have lost one colleague in recent months, and others in the team have lost friends and family.

Not all were due to COVID-19, but the impact of being unable to attend a funeral or have a proper celebration of the lives of friends or loved ones has been unbearably difficult.

Supporting colleagues virtually when you can’t be there to put an arm round them or put a hand on their shoulder is hard.

Talk about death, dying and advance care planning

For those who couldn’t visit and be with their loved ones or attend the funeral, grieving is going to be much harder. An unsaid goodbye or inability to be there in person or to attend a funeral is often the hardest part of grief.

In the world of palliative care we talk about death and dying a lot. Yet COVID-19 has again taught us that we should not wait for a diagnosis of a life-limiting condition to talk about death and dying, and how advance care planning could benefit each and every one of us.

In 2019 Marie Curie launched its Talkabout campaign, which encourages people to be more open in talking about death and dying.

During the COVID-19 crisis we, along with other healthcare staff, have seen firsthand the value and importance of knowing what our loved one’s preferences are at the end of life.

‘Be mindful that everyone is different... some people want to go straight back to work after a bereavement, others need a significant time away from work’

If, like me, you manage a team, it is important to be supportive but also to acknowledge when you don’t have all the answers or the right words for staff.

It is also critical that you know where to signpost them for further information and support.

People can access free emotional support for up to six weeks

Find out if services such as employee assistance programmes, bereavement teams and telephone counselling are available in your workplace, and keep the details to hand.

Make your colleagues aware of what support is available. 

Sometimes it can be necessary to send these communications and reminders several times to ensure that people know where and how to access them.

Marie Curie’s national bereavement service is another option, available to anyone affected by the death of a loved one. People can access free emotional support from a dedicated volunteer, over the phone, for up to six weeks.

Picture of two young female medics sitting at a table
Picture: Brian Morrison/Marie Curie

There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to grief

The bereavement service is in addition to our telephone support line for practical information and emotional support as well as clinical guidance on care for the dying, which is available to everyone, including health and social care professionals.

No one has all the answers and we will, at times, say or do the wrong things; we are human. Hopefully we will learn from our mistakes and reflect and improve when advice and support we have given previously has gone well.

Be mindful that everyone is different and there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to grief. Some people want to go straight back to work after a bereavement, others need a significant time away from work.

The pandemic has been a firm reminder of what is important to us

Embrace technology to keep lines of communication open. At Marie Curie we have a messaging platform on all our staff tablets, so we have been able to continue holding meetings and clinical supervision sessions virtually.

Being the manager of a team can be overwhelming but it can also be incredibly rewarding and humbling. I am amazed every day at the team and colleagues I work with. Many staff who have been ill themselves are coming back to work, putting on their face masks and visors and just getting on with it.

None of us will forget 2020. It has been a firm reminder of what is important to us: people and relationships.

I hope the kindness, support and empathy we have seen continues and, as a manager, I pledge to try my best to continue to lead by example.

Anyone who is struggling with any aspect of dying, death or bereavement can call Marie Curie’s support line free on 0800 090 2309.

View our COVID-19 resource centre

Picture of Debbie Ripley, who is a regional manager for Marie Curie LondonDebbie Ripley is a regional manager for Marie Curie London



Find out more

Marie Curie Talkabout campaign

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