Career advice

Support in a crisis: what to bear in mind when comforting relatives in distress

How to feel better equipped to support patients’ loved ones when they are upset

How to feel better equipped to support patients’ loved ones when they are upset


Picture: iStock

I’ve yet to meet anyone who wasn’t affected by the reports of a father being stabbed to death on a train in front of his 14-year-old son.

The incident, which occurred at the beginning of January, was horrific and senseless. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days.

It goes without saying that the son will need specialist help to try to come to terms with what happened. To witness your father dying in such a terrible way is, for me, impossible to imagine.

In this situation, it would most likely have been fellow passengers who were the first to offer support, doing their best in a situation that no one could prepare for.

Supporting families in a crisis

This caused me to reflect on how nurses are expected to support relatives in the immediate aftermath – even sometimes during – tragic situations yet few have any formal training for this.

Nobody can plan how they will react when a loved one is ill or dying. Some may hold their emotions in, while others may be openly sad, angry, even ‘hysterical’. All are different manifestations of the brain trying to absorb the situation, and as nurses, you must be there to support family members.

‘Try to think about how you come across and consider asking trusted colleagues for feedback’

Even though there may be little you can do to make the situation better, your behaviour can make a difference. If you strike the wrong tone, for example, you may upset people further and this could merge with their sad memories and stay with them forever. 

There is no magic formula to supporting relatives – everyone is different, and you will have your own style of being with people. But reflecting on the following points could help you improve your practice:

  • Are you being real? Regardless of what you have experienced in your life or witnessed through work, you do not know what those in front of you are going through. Don’t offer false concerns, such as ‘I know how you must feel’, instead try to adopt an empathetic manner.
  • Is your body reflecting what you are saying? Most likely, you will still be aware of what else is happening around you and everything you need to do, but try to be mindful when you are with relatives. They will notice if, for example, you are saying ‘take all the time you need’ but your body is saying you want to get away.
  • Have you got the balance right? It can be a fine line between protecting professional boundaries and coming across as distant and uncaring. Try to think about how you come across and consider asking trusted colleagues for feedback.
  • Do you try to fill in the spaces? Remember the phrase ‘silence is golden’ – sometimes taking a pause and letting everyone have some space can show the greatest respect.
  • Are you trying to fix things? Sad and tragic things happen. You cannot change this, but you can simply be there.

Be aware of your own 'triggers'

It is also important you learn to protect yourself and recognise any ‘triggers’ – if you have recently been bereaved, for example. And remember it is okay to ask for a debrief or one-to-one support.

You are often on your own with patients and relatives, but you don’t have to cope with things by yourself all the time.


Mandy Day-Calder is a life/health coach and former nurse

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