Our role extends to caring for the person and their family after death. This care can include the following:
- Making the call to the person’s family that they died. This can be daunting, so speak to experienced clinicians about the strategies they find helpful in this situation.
- Preparing the person’s body and cleaning the hospital room to prepare for viewing as soon as possible after death.
- Being aware that personal care after death is best carried out within two to four hours of the person dying; this preserves their appearance, condition and dignity.
- Providing support to the family and friends and giving them the opportunity to participate in the process of preparing the body if they wish to do so.
- Honouring the spiritual and cultural wishes of the older person and their family and friends, for example, having a family member wash and care for the body or ensuring only someone of the same gender washes and cares for the body.
- Preparing the person’s body for transfer to the mortuary, funeral director or other location based on the older person’s and their family’s wishes.
- Using the person’s preferred name and give families some warning of what to expect if they have not been present. This can be as simple as normalising the fact that once a person has died their body can become stiff and a bit cold to touch, but it can be comforting to touch their hair.
- Ensuring privacy, respect and dignity of the deceased person is maintained.
- Honouring people’s wishes for organ and tissue donation.
- Ensuring the safe return of the deceased person’s personal possessions to the relevant family member or friend.
- Providing family and friends with written information about the processes following death, such as what will happen with their body, how to collect the death certificate, the role of the funeral director and bereavement support services. Provide them with the opportunity to ask any questions. Some hospitals have bereavement procedures and provide a follow up phone call to families. Follow your health service procedures.
We should also be mindful that other patients and their families will be aware the person has died and this may raise some emotions for them. It’s best to acknowledge and respond to these concerns.
Grief and loss
Grief is a common and especially significant concern for carers and family members. Reassure family and caregivers that these responses are common and that grieving is the normal response to the death of a loved one. Grief is profound as it affects so many domains of our lives. Early actions can be taken to minimise distress associated with grief.
It can manifest as sadness, anger, fear distress, despair, anxiety, guilt, worrying thoughts, sleep disturbance, social withdrawal and/or decreased ability to maintain an organised lifestyle.
Grief can also trigger feelings of loneliness and social isolation for family and carers. These feelings may be pre-existing but exacerbated by the loss, or caused by the grief if a person withdraws from their usual activities. It is important to ask how they are feeling, acknowledge their feelings and help them to seek appropriate support and engage with others. It is also important to:
- allow a person to talk about their concerns
- offer practical support
- allow for individual responses
- accept strong responses or stoicism
- take time, don’t rush
- encourage family and friends to take time to say goodbye.