May 01, 2023

Dealing with death and dying: how to protect your psychological health

death and dying

Aged care staff face a variety of challenges that come with their work and dealing with death, dying and grief is an unfortunate reality of the job.

When frequently dealing with the death of people you are caring for, particularly if you have a strong relationship with them, intense feelings of grief and loss often arise which can be harmful if not dealt with.

Grief is a common response to death. Everyone expresses grief differently and no one can tell another how they should grieve, but it is important to know where to turn to when you are in a state of bereavement and still need to work in the industry.

The Australian Psychological Society acknowledged that aged care workers should be trained to deal with the challenges of their job properly, particularly in areas where trauma or workplace injury may occur, such as the death of a client. But access to psychological services, particularly through your workplace, can be limited as the country faces a shortage of psychology professionals.

Just yesterday, The Medical Journal of Australia released findings that evidence‐based mental health and wellbeing programs are needed for workers in health and aged care organisations to alleviate the ongoing mental health and wellbeing effects of workplace shortages, considerable physical and psychological demands of the job as well as the COVID‐19 pandemic.

As it is in the nature of a carer to do just that – care for others – it is also important for you to care for yourself when you’re feeling weighed down from bereavement.

So what can be done to protect your psychological health?

Heightened exposure to grief in aged care

Exposure to repeated instances of death and grief has been linked to burnout and overwhelming stress in many aged care workers.

Aged care workers are battling staff shortages, increased responsibilities and are still feeling the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing the likelihood of experiencing burnout even more.

Grief can also be complicated or prolonged which can be persistent, debilitating and lead to serious psychological distress.

Aged care staff can experience grief more intensely after a resident’s death if:

  • They were particularly close to the person who passed
  • They have limited confidence in caring for people at the end of life, or in talking about death
  • They are facing other stressors, such as heavy workload demands or conflicts and pressures at home
  • COVID-19 can also add to the grief experienced by aged care staff as they are under increased pressure to provide end of life care when family and volunteer visits are limited

Managing grief and bereavement at work

After experiencing death and loss, you may feel the need to start distancing yourself from clients in the name of self-preservation. 

You’re not alone. Since the pandemic, many working in the health and aged care field have said they are experiencing compassion burnout – putting the care of vulnerable older Australians at risk. But this strategy probably won’t help you and learning ways to cope with grief can help you build the emotional resilience needed to be the best carer you can be. You can grieve and still care well.

As a first step, it is important for you to acknowledge your feelings of loss and grief. Think about how you are feeling, why you may be feeling it and identify if you think you need to take more steps to help you mitigate these, often intense, feelings.

If you have decided you need more help and support, you can lean on your workplace and fellow colleagues to talk out your feelings and experiences. 

Aged care supervisors and staff can support each other by debriefing after a client dies and listening in a non-judgmental way. You may also decide to organise a memorial or attend the client’s funeral if you wish.

Staff should be given time and a private space to debrief after a resident’s death to honour the loss, sign condolence cards for the family and share information about the end of life caring experience. You can ask to know your organisation’s support policy by talking to your supervisor as this should be outlined in an Employee Assistance Program.

Managing grief and bereavement at home

When something happens at work, it’s not easy to simply leave it at the door.

Developing self-awareness is an important step in mitigating the feelings and experiences associated with bereavement and grief. By identifying your strengths and weaknesses as well as understanding why you react the way you do in certain situations, you can better manage your emotions rather than being overwhelmed by them.

If grief and bereavement are becoming unmanageable and starting to impact your home life, maintaining self-care practices is paramount to getting through.

Taking time to rest and relax is key to avoiding burnout and keeping stress levels under wraps. 

Where possible, spend time with friends and family so that you have opportunities to talk about your feelings and experiences and also maintain your sense of community support and social connection.

As always recommended, maintaining a healthy diet and exercising in some capacity helps with feelings such as sadness and loss. But you may find you still need a bit more support to help you through.

Seek help by talking to a General Practitioner (GP), a counsellor, a psychologist or other source of professional support.

There are specific bereavement services to help you with grief and loss which may even be available to you through your employer, given the nature of the job. 

Read more in our article: ‘Tips for reducing your stress and burnout’.

Dealing with death and dying is no easy feat. We all experience grief loss in our lives but for aged care staff, this reality is constant. 

Knowing what to do, where to turn and what supports are available to you when you lose a resident are important pieces of information that can help you grieve healthily while still caring.

What’s it like at your place of work? Do you feel like you get enough bereavement support? Let us know in the comments below. 

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