First times

Coping with the death of a patient

Location: UK
Audience: Junior doctors Medical students
Updated: Tuesday 20 July 2021
Topics: Your wellbeing
When a patient dies medical students may experience a range of emotions, including sadness, guilt and anger. Read tips on how to cope.

When a patient you have been looking after dies, many emotions may come into play.

Doctors are trained to cure patients and improve their quality of life and in this context, we may feel that we have failed when someone dies.

Patients may often develop a closer bond with medical students than with other medical staff. You are able to spend longer with patients than doctors and they may confide in you more than others.

You may have feelings of loss and bereavement when a patient dies and the event may also evoke feelings of guilt or anger - you may feel that you, or others, could have done more to help the patient during their final illness. Whereas relatives of the deceased are allowed to grieve, as a medical student, you may feel you have no 'permission' to express your emotions.

And sometimes the death of a patient may reawaken feelings of a personal loss that you have experienced previously.


How to cope?

How can you, as a medical student, cope or make sense of events following the death of a patient who you have been looking after?

First, it is important to acknowledge the death - you may find it helpful to share your feelings with colleagues, friends and family.

You may also find it helpful, to some degree, to share feelings of loss with members of the family of the deceased. Of course, it is important to realise that the grief of the family must take precedence, but sometimes family members can gain a great deal of comfort from sharing experiences with someone who has been involved with the care of their relative.

Too often in medicine we do not acknowledge events such as this, and our own feelings get lost because we then become involved with new cases and new situations.

Far from being an event to be 'swept under the carpet', it is important to acknowledge the death of a patient in whose care we have been involved, and also to acknowledge the feelings that are evoked within us.

This will help us to become more aware of the needs of our patients and also to recognise our own needs.

wellbeing illustration
Your wellbeing

We have a range of services to support you.

  • Counselling
  • Peer support
  • UK wellbeing support directory

Call our free and confidential helpline on 0330 123 1245

View our services