Whether in the emergency room, labor and delivery, oncology ward, or surgery, each death takes a toll on people and healthcare providers alike.

In the throes of chaotic, unpredictable circumstances, healthcare professionals are faced with complicated decision-making, such as whether to allow a family to hold or touch a child who died suddenly before a police investigation determines cause of death. Given their importance, doctors and nurses and other healthcare professionals need top-quality training and support.

Five Guiding Principles

These five guiding principles can help health professionals support people during this difficult time.



Communicate clearly

Nothing is more disorienting than saying goodbye to a loved one. People may struggle to make sense of what happened. Using clear words to describe a disease or cause of death may help them understand what led to their loved one’s death and what was (or was not) within their control. Clear communication also offers an opportunity to demonstrate the respect professionals have for people.



Understand hallmark memories

Every interaction medical staff has with a person can become a hallmark memory that defines how they remember their last moments with their loved one – loving or painful. Choosing words and actions wisely will support short- and long-term coping.



Listen patiently and quietly

Understanding cultural differences and respecting an individual’s experience can be difficult at times. Listening and acknowledging the tremendous pain and difficult decisions people face will help you determine what they need.



Allow families to make decisions

Healthcare professionals experience painful human events daily, but for many people their loved one’s death may be their first or only significant medical crisis. People should be allowed to govern care, even if they make decisions with which providers might not agree. Allowing people to make decisions during a time of emotional distress is important and gives them some sense of control. Painful memories, especially those that include a loss of agency, can produce a secondary emotional injury and limit their ability to cope well in the aftermath. Providers may have individual biases; if there is a conflict over care, an ethics consult may be helpful.



Generate legacy and memories

It is important to allow people to be themselves, and providers can play an important role in memory-making. Help them create keepsakes such as photos or videos. Providers might also suggest that they not wash all the loved one’s clothes at one time, as they reach the end of their lives, to help them hang onto and cherish all that they can.

Actions and words spoken before, during and after a death impacts a person’s ability to cope in the short and long-term.