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Coping with death and grief as a healthcare worker

People who work in healthcare settings often deal with death, dying and bereavement as part of their job.

Working in settings where you are exposed to death does not make it easier to manage grief.

You may not 'get used to' death and dying. But you can find effective ways to cope with your grief.

Professional grief and personal grief

You can experience both:

  • personal grief - when someone in your personal life or community dies
  • professional grief - when someone at work dies, this could be a colleague, patient or client

Coping with personal grief after bereavement or loss

Employee assistance programmes (EAP) offer support for both personal and work-related issues.

Find information on supports

Dealing with death and dying at work

You may often work in a busy and challenging environment.

Sometimes you may set aside your emotions to be able to help others or work under pressure. But it’s important to look after yourself as well as others when you are affected by a death. It is OK to grieve.

It can help to give yourself time to:

  • acknowledge the death
  • allow yourself to feel sadness and other emotions
  • acknowledge the help and support you gave the person who died and their family
  • talk about the death and how you feel with someone you trust
  • ask for support if you need it
  • identify healthy ways to cope and look after your mental health

Eating well, limiting alcohol, and getting enough sleep and exercise helps your physical and mental health.

Be kind and patient with yourself. There is no right or wrong way to feel or react after a bereavement or loss. Everyone copes with grief in different ways.

Do not compare yourself to others.

Even if you are often exposed to death at work, some situations can be more difficult than others. For example, if you developed a bond with a patient or the situation reminds you of a personal loss. Sometimes you may not know why a death affects you more than another.

Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a new and difficult experience for many healthcare workers.

You may have been exposed to more death, illness and distress than usual. Or you may not have been able to use your usual coping strategies.

You may have:

  • spent more time with dying patients when their families could not be there
  • felt pressure to return to work after a death before you were ready
  • continued to work after a colleague died in service
  • been distanced or felt isolated from your friends, family or support network outside work
  • had no time or space to grieve
  • put the needs of other people who were grieving before your own needs

Ask your manager, colleagues or EAP contact for support if you are affected by any of these situations.

Supporting colleagues who are grieving

It can feel difficult or awkward to talk about death and grief with colleagues. Many people avoid the subject.

But you do not need specialist knowledge about bereavement to help a colleague. A simple and compassionate approach often helps.

To support a colleague you can:

  • acknowledge the death and its impact - such as a simple expression of sympathy in person, by phone or as a written message
  • listen to them when they need it
  • offer support in a sensitive way - find out what resources and support are available in your workplace
  • ask how you can help
  • check in with them again - sometimes people may need space or privacy at first

People experience grief in different ways. Feelings of grief can come and go unexpectedly. Try to avoid judging someone if they react to a death in a different way than you would.

Supporting someone who is grieving

Continue to talk about ways you can support each other as a team. Maintaining an understanding work environment with peer support reduces distress from grief and increases wellbeing.

Grief and stress

Grief following a death can be hidden or unrecognised.

This can happen if you:

  • had to cope with a lot of losses in a short time without time to grieve (sometimes called bereavement overload)
  • were taught to set aside your emotions to work effectively
  • feel that it is not professional to show emotion at work
  • are affected by death that you cannot talk about or is viewed with stigma
  • are affected by death related to a critical incident or traumatic event

Keeping grief hidden can lead to ongoing stress. You may have physical symptoms such as nightmares, sleep loss and fatigue. This can affect your personal life and professional life.

Talk to your GP or employee assistance programme if you:

  • feel numb or disconnected from your emotions
  • have overwhelming feelings of guilt
  • feel more irritable or angry than usual
  • have more cynical feelings than usual
  • have difficulty maintaining hope

Read about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Information and support

Ask your employer if they offer an employee assistance programme (EAP). EAP services provide confidential support for employees on personal and work-related issues.

Information for HSE staff

HSE Employee Assistance Programme

Staff: minding your mental health and online mental health programmes

Guidance for HSE staff affected by death in service of a colleague due to COVID-19

Critical incident stress management (CISM) for HSE staff

Irish Hospice Foundation courses

The Irish Hospice Foundation (IHF) provides free e-learning courses on grief in healthcare settings:

Related Content

  • Bereavement supports and services
    Most people find their way through their grief with the support of friends and family. If you need more support, find organisations that can help.

page last reviewed: 16/05/2022
next review due: 16/05/2025