I'm so sorry....your spouse just died.

  1. 1
    (Deep breath in…..long sigh……) I just cringe at the thought of having to tell someone the news; "I'm sorry, but we lost your wife/husband/brother/aunt....." etc. etc. etc.

    How many of you have had to tell a loved one that you were unable to save their loved one....especially when it comes as a shocker - - - they were doing so good that they were ready to downgrade, only to code and not survive.


    I had to be the bearer of bad news, and found myself in the situation of having the task dropped into my lap at change of shift. I feel like I will NEVER be able to forgive myself for accidently letting it slip
    over the phone that someone's spouse died. The wrong words came out at the insistence of "What happened, what happened, what happened" after the family member (who couldn't be reached for several hours) had received countless messages from different sources that they needed to call the hospital right urgently.


    Why, oh why couldn't I have just lied and said "Your family member is very ill and you need to come right away". ?? Noooo…..Not me. Instead, I said "I'm so very sorry…..we lost your (spouse). (Spouse) had a (fatal condition), and we were unable to save (spouse)."


    Worse yet….when the family member came to the hospital (right away), they were crying and exclaiming 'how could someone give them that information over the phone?! '
    I immediately went over the family member, looked them right in the eye and used every ounce of courage I had to tell them "I'm so very sorry….I was the person that you spoke to over the phone."


    I then spent the next 6 hours trying to offer emotional support, trying to undo the damage I had caused, and helping the family members solve all the problems that come with an unexpected death in the family while at the hospital.


    This is such a painful, debilitating memory for me - and I can't help but think that if I feel this bad about saying the words - I can only imagine how badly the spouse must still feel for having to hear those words over the phone.


    CCL RN likes this.

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  2. 10 Comments...

  3. 1
    Please, do not be so hard on yourself. First of all, usually the responsibility of informing family of such news (in an acute setting) falls on the physician; as a nurse, we provide the emotional support. Not sure which were the circunstances which made that your responsibility, but the fact that you were there for the family during such a difficult time (in my opinion) made up for the unconventional delivery of the bad news.

    Live and Learn...
    Take care.
    ®Nurse likes this.
  4. 4
    I have been castigated by families because I didn't tell them over the phone that their loved one had died so they could prepare themselves.

    When someone dies, there is NO kind or absolutely correct way to tell them.

    In my own family: My father died at home - hospice. My stepmother noted that he had stopped breathing and requested an uncle to see what was wrong (I was about 1000 mls away). He went in, noted no pulse, and told her that he had passed. In the aftermath, she was very angry and said" how could he just say that"?

    People tend to distain the bearer of bad news. We unfortunately have to give it too often.
    opossum, CCL RN, ®Nurse, and 1 other like this.
  5. 2
    I am sorry that you had to do that, I myself am not sure how I will handle this. If it makes you feel better know that you have helped me by posting this, sometimes you can't always find the right words but you had enough integrity to admit that you were the nurse that slipped on the phone. Plus you apologized for your wrongs and were there for the family! I bet you are a wonderful nurse and the fact that this weighs so heavy on your heart shows that you have a true compassion for your patients and their families! Thanks for the post!
    opossum and ®Nurse like this.
  6. 2
    While you obviously didn't feel the situation was handled as you had hoped, please remember it is an awfully hard thing to do.

    A family's reaction can be so unpredictable and a sick relative can bring out some big divisions within families. Spending 6 hours with them, and owning up is no small thing.

    But it does not get easier. Most of us have had similar experiences.

    The family you dealt with have probably had a funeral to organise, and many things since your time with them.

    Maybe it is just time to carry on and keep going.
    opossum and ®Nurse like this.
  7. 1
    I think the family member was more upset with the information itself than with how it was communicated. It's never actually occurred to me that it would be better to lie to a family member over the phone in order to be able to tell them in person. Personally, if somebody called me and said my family member was very ill, and then when I got there they told me they were actually dead when they called, I'd punch them in the face. The truth is never pleasant in these situations but at least it's the truth.

    In theory the Physician notifies family, but in reality it is often the nurse, either of a worsening condition or an unexpected death.
    ®Nurse likes this.
  8. 2
    I agree with many of the other posters. Once you've had to break this kind of news to family often enough (I don't work in a Level I with docs at the bedside 'round the clock; I am frequently the one who notifies family of a death), you'll see every reaction under the sun. Some shout, some cry, some laugh and brush you off, some may even call you a liar and turn around and walk out (happened to me last year). While you may feel that you could have done a better job with this family member, you did the best you could. The simple truth is that no matter how you did it, that family member was in a for a huge whalloping dose of pain and heartache. Try not to be so hard on yourself: focus instead on how hard you worked to be supportive for that person, to stand by their side and offer your compassion and acceptance. After all, you're only human, too.
    opossum and ®Nurse like this.
  9. 1
    Sorry, it's tough to deal with.

    It falls on the doctor/PA/NP to tell the family about the death, not you, over the phone. Never let someone push that responsibility off on you. But you did the right thing granted the situation, if they ask don't hold back.
    ®Nurse likes this.
  10. 1
    You're clearly a very caring nurse and I think you've handled this situation very well. There is no right and wrong way of dealing with something like this. You never know how people will react and what is best for them, you can only go with your gut. They asked you what happened and you were right to tell them. They would have guessed it had you not. Where I work we're encourgaged to be honest when a patient dies, even if it means telling them over the phone. I guess it means people won't put themselves and others at risk by rushing to the hospital believing their relative is close to passing. Also imagine rushing to get there only too find out they'd passed away before you arrived, and the guilt associated with that. I'm sorry that this particular family weren't prepared for having this information on the phone, however a lot of other people would have great respect for you for having made that very difficult awkward phone call and being honest with them about their loved one.
    opossum likes this.
  11. 1
    Quote from Sun*shine
    You're clearly a very caring nurse and I think you've handled this situation very well. There is no right and wrong way of dealing with something like this. You never know how people will react and what is best for them, you can only go with your gut. They asked you what happened and you were right to tell them. They would have guessed it had you not. Where I work we're encourgaged to be honest when a patient dies, even if it means telling them over the phone. I guess it means people won't put themselves and others at risk by rushing to the hospital believing their relative is close to passing. Also imagine rushing to get there only too find out they'd passed away before you arrived, and the guilt associated with that. I'm sorry that this particular family weren't prepared for having this information on the phone, however a lot of other people would have great respect for you for having made that very difficult awkward phone call and being honest with them about their loved one.
    I have had to do this over the phone several times, and I will say that usually it is not unexpected news. If a pt. has died unexpectedly, I still would break the news over the phone, instead of having a pt.s family rush to the hospital under false pretenses. I just do not think lying about it is moral, and I certainly could not pull that off.

    I think you did the right thing. Sick people do die, and I'm sorry that you were made to feel bad because of the circumstances, despite the compassionate way you handled it.
    opossum likes this.


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