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Coping with the death of a colleague: advice and support for nurses

How to deal with bereavement at work and where to go for support

Picture: iStock

Coping with the death of a colleague is difficult at the best of times.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, nurses and others working on the front line of care may experience grief after losing a colleague, with wider factors making bereavement difficult to cope with for everyone.

Strong bonds are made when nursing in difficult conditions

Many close relationships are formed at work, and in difficult times strong bonds are made. When a colleague dies it can be a shock, whether you worked together for a few weeks or for many years.

You may have lost a friend as well as a colleague, and even if you did not know your colleague well, the death of someone in a similar role to you is likely to be sad and destabilising.

The pandemic has affected the way we grieve

The pandemic and social distancing are making bereavement even more challenging.

Our tried and tested rituals for saying goodbye and for coping when someone dies are being affected.

‘Funerals are being limited to immediate family, so you may not be able to say goodbye the way you would usually’

Many of us are cut off from our support networks, and unable to meet up with friends and family.

Funerals are being limited to immediate family, so you may not be able to say goodbye the way you would usually, or offer your condolences to your colleague’s family in the way you would like.

If your colleague died from COVID-19 or another work-related cause, you might feel anxious or vulnerable yourself and in relation to the risk to your family.

Ways to handle grief

Everyone experiences grief differently and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Talking is one of the most helpful things, and it can be a great comfort to share how you are feeling.

You may be able to talk to friends and family, but sometimes it can help most to talk to colleagues who knew the person who died and share your feelings and memories.

It may not be possible to attend the funeral, but some families are arranging for services to be recorded or live streamed. If this is not possible, you might still be able to mark the occasion by just taking some time to reflect and think about what your colleague meant to you.

Where to get support

If you are struggling, Cruse Bereavement Care can offer help and advice. Cruse has information and advice about bereavement and COVID-19 in its new resources section, which includes articles on grief in isolation, funerals and coping as a front-line worker. Its freephone helpline (0808 808 1677) is open seven days a week and live chat is open 9am–9pm Monday to Friday, while local services provide support sessions over the phone and online.

NHS staff can access a free, confidential bereavement support line, operated by Hospice UK. The number is 0300 303 4434 and it is open 8am-8pm seven days a week. Staff can access up to three sessions with the same counsellor and onward access to staff mental health services.

RCN members can get free, confidential support to deal with challenging emotional issues, whether work related or personal. To make an appointment, call 0345 772 6100.

Managers and colleagues can help

Managers can do a lot to help. They can act as a point of contact with the person’s family and collect condolences to pass on. It might be possible to arrange a virtual gathering where colleagues can talk to each other and share memories.

Rituals are important in the grieving process; sharing pictures, playing the person’s favourite music, writing a message to them, or lighting a candle are all ways that colleagues can remember the person’s life together. There is also the option of holding a digital memorial or creating a digital condolence book.

You don’t have to grieve alone

Most importantly, look after yourself. If you need to speak to someone, contact an organisation that can help (see box, above). If the current situation is making you feel anxious or you are finding it difficult to cope, there are also resources that can help.

NHS staff can find information and support at the Our NHS People website, which offers guides and free access to well-being apps until the end of 2020.

The Our Frontline website provides support and information for all key workers.


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