Chapter 2: When death occurs
When a family member isn’t present at the moment of death
“I wasn’t present when my father died but the rest of my family was. Apparently, it was just terrible. I may not have been there, but I have all sorts of images in my mind”. – Family member
When a family member is not present for the death, they often feel enormous guilt. Other common feelings include anger, shame, failure, and betrayal.
Acknowledge the person’s feelings and try to gently neutralize what has happened. Remind the family:
- That you tried your best, however unfortunately there are some things not within our control.
- That the person was well cared for and, if true, died peacefully.
- Of all the time they spent with the patient before they died and how helpful that was.
If the person couldn’t be at the bedside before the death, acknowledge their efforts in trying to be there.
“I know you were worried about leaving her and not being here when she died. You made the best decision you could at the time. Remember how many hours you spent with her”.
“I know you did your very best to be present when they died. We’re very sorry you weren’t here, but that’s not your fault. Things changed very quickly and this was unexpected. Sometimes we can’t be everywhere we want or need to be”.
Minimizing vicarious trauma for families
A person doesn’t have to witness an event to be affected by it. If a family member wasn’t present at the moment of death, ask if they’d like to know what happened. If they agree, describe exactly what happened without being too graphic. This is an effective strategy for preventing traumatization, which can result from imagining countless terrible scenarios.