How did you handle your first patient dying?


I thought I'd ask the seasoned nurses this, even though I'm just a student. I had a patient in clinicals 2 weeks ago that was just the most wonderful person. We really connected and I had an amazing day because of her. Yesterday, she was back but on palliative care. I went in to see her and about an hour after that, she died. I did her post mortem care, which was nice to be able to do for her, but I feel really sad. Is it normal to be this emotional when your first patient dies? I cried twice yesterday, and don't want to have that continue, so I'm hoping that it gets easier. I'm okay with death, I think it's just that I didn't expect her to end up back in the hospital.

Any advice?

Flare, ASN, BSN

5 Articles; 4,431 Posts

Specializes in school nursing, ortho, trauma.

Your experiences will vary from patient to patient. Some deaths you'll take a bit more personally, particularly if you've bonded with a patient. It gets easier - over time your attitude to a life ending can change from sadness to a feeling of being glad to have taken care of them at that point of their life. For some of us, death is just another part of life - as necessary as birth and the sorrow we feel is for knowing a person suffered in their final hours.

I don't remember anything about the first patient aside that it was a palliative care only pt. I think when you go through it a couple of times it will all start to blur and become easier. Personally, I find myself becoming very desensitized to it. But sometimes might think about a pt and his/her diagnosis/prognosis and feel sad or upset over it. I don't connect to many pts to think about it too much outside of work. I compartmentalize.

I had a patient in clinical who was being discharged to hospice. He decided to forgo a CABG procedure, was also end stage CHF. I really connected with him and felt really, really sad that his death was imminent, especially since he seemed so full of life and spirit still. It helped to talk it over with my instructor as well as my therapist (who I was seeing at that time). There are still patients who manage to pluck something in my heart, but you do learn how to deal with that sadness as you get more experience.

Mas Catoer

77 Posts

Specializes in General. Has 30 years experience.

If you are asking it as the first time experience I think that was completely OK with you. Though professsional bonding only allow us up to having emphaty, but everyone always have a starting point in which turn out to be a good chance to make better way in professional involvement with any patient under your care throughout your nursing career.

uRNmyway, ASN, RN

1 Article; 1,080 Posts

Specializes in Med-Surg.

I think your first patient death is most often a difficult thing, especially as a student. My first patient death was a woman with terminal breast CA. It was the week before mother's day, her family was coming from out of town to spend the weekend with her. The poor woman had such a rough day. She was in pain, nauseous, and her evil MD made her endure prep for a barium swallow. She was then left to wait for over an hour for her exam. Since I had convinced my teacher to let me attend with her, I skipped my lunch to hold her hand and smooth back her hair. It was particularly rough for me because my grandmother died from breast CA, and she never let me go see her in the hospital. I guess a part of me felt like I was making up for it with this woman.

The next week, I brought her a teddy bear I had bought on my way to clinical. When I got to the floor, she was gone. She never made it to the weekend, to her children visiting her. I had to leave the department temporarily, go call my mom, and bawled my eyes out. Then I shook it off, and went back to work.

Like others have said, some patients will affect you more than others. You will have to learn to compartmentalize it though if you want to keep your sanity, or avoid burnout. That being said, I think even the most seasoned nurse has a patient, a family, who touches their heart and makes them shed a few tears, even if its in the privacy of their car, the bathroom, medroom, etc. After all, nurses are human too.


1,341 Posts

I pumped my fist into the air and I said "YES". I was happy for him. Death was the best possible outcome for him and he was now soaring with eagles rather than laying in that bed racked with pain, contorted and twisted. It was a good death.


716 Posts

Specializes in Public Health, L&D, NICU. Has 15 years experience.

I have never worked med/surg, I went straight to L&D, but I vividly remember my first death. We had a patient come in almost completely dilated, but only 21 weeks. Babies (twins) were not viable, but were still alive. I sat with them until they died (and that seemed to take forever). I cried all the way home, and told my husband when I got home that I was quitting my job. He was understandably freaked out, and talked me out of it. It made me very aware of stillbirths and births of nonviable babies. When I was still working L&D, I would usually end up with these patients. I went out of my way to take good photographs (face mangled? focus the pictures on those precious feet) and make other mementos for the parents.

rubato, ASN, RN

1,111 Posts

Specializes in Oncology/hematology.

Thanks for all the advice and stories everyone. I'm feeling a lot better and know this will get a lot easier. I am happy she is gone, because she's doing much better where she is now, not dealing with COPD and acute respiratory distress.

umcRN, BSN, RN

867 Posts

Has 4 years experience.

This probably sounds strange, but my first (in the NICU) was a beautiful post term baby whose only "problem" was that she was born at 43 (yes 43) weeks and was essentially a stillborn but was resuscitated at OSH and sent to our NICU for cooling. She ultimately herniated and passed. I remember as her parents walked away (sweetest parents ever of course) I went back into her room, closed the door, scooped her up and sat in the rocking chair just sobbing.

It's never easy, but it does get easier. If that makes any sense.


58 Posts

Specializes in Psychiatry.

I've been a nurse for 25 years and still vividly remember my first patient death. He also had COPD. For 2 nights I had cared for him through his suffering, distress and anxiety. After he died and all the details were taken care of; I sobbed on the night shift supervisor's shoulder. (real professional,huh; but she was always a great support) I think your reaction was normal and it will get easier to put in perspective.


11 Posts

I worked at a LTC facility as a CNA and that is where I first experienced death of a patient. It was my first week of work. And that particular one was not hard but there were several after that that were very difficult. I remember one in particular that I cried with the wife of the resident that passed. That one was hard and to top it off, my director told me it was unprofessional to cry with the family. WHAT?!?! Don't ever let anybody tell you that. We all grieve in different ways and that is ok. I truly find being there with them when it happens or during the process as rewarding. I really don't mind postmortem care. I have been in many different situations dealing with death, and I am sure that there are more to come.