Health Care Aide Training: How Do You Support a Grieving Family?

Facing the death of a patient is a natural part of working as a health care aide. But that doesn't mean it ever gets easy.

Health care aides (HCAs) play a very special role in the lives of their patients, and often develop close friendships with those they support.

Whether they work in a long-term care facility, hospice centre, or home care, HCAs become part of their patient's everyday life. They help with everything from personal grooming and taking medications—to talking about fears, memories, and hopes for the future.

These working relationships often grow into close friendships. In many cases, HCAs become "part of the family". Family and friends see them as crucial members of the care team. It's not unusual for health care aides to get close to their patient's inner circle.

When a patient dies, HCAs have an important part to play in helping the family face the loss and work through the grief.

You will learn about some of these family support tips in health care aide training, and others you will develop on your own, out in the field. Here are some words of advice to keep in mind.


There is no "right" way to respond to death

Family members respond in many different ways when a loved one dies. There is no "right" reaction. The emotional response can range from profound sadness, to anger, to a kind of numbness, where the person seems to have no emotion at all.

Sometimes cultural traditions impact how families face death.  It's key for HCAs to remain non-judgemental, and provide a safe space in which families and close friends can grieve the way they want.

You're there to talk, if they want, or just listen. You're there to give a hug, or hold their hand, while the loved-one slips away.

Health care aides do what they can to interpret the needs of grieving families, and offer steady, compassionate support as it's needed. You are a port in the storm—someone who can guide them through those first, often confusing, moments after death.

Related: 5 Ways You'll Improve Patients' Lives as a Health Care Aide


Small gestures can make a big difference

Health care aides care for multiple patients, and do many rounds each day to check in on their condition. For example, at a nursing home, it's common for HCAs to look after 10 or more patients each shift.

There will be times when you just can't spend as long as you'd like with a particular patient. Or, with the family of a patient who has passed away. So, it's important to remember that small, kind gestures can be incredibly powerful—and very helpful to the grieving family.

At Dulcina Hospice in Calgary, resident assistants do little things to ensure families feel as supported as possible when a loved one dies.

For example, families are allowed to stay the whole day at the hospice, if they want. The assistants make a point to get to know the families well, and ensure their preferences regarding privacy, dignity, choice, and traditions are respected.

In one case, resident assistant, Tracy Lowe, stood by her patient's beside while the family grieved their loss. As requested, the patient had been dressed in a traditional Japanese kimono, wig, makeup, and painted finger nails.

Afterward, the hospice set up a memorial table for the patient, which was filled with beautiful origami and flowers, as a tribute to her life and culture. These gestures, while small, help both staff and families cope with loss in an affirming, compassionate way.

Read more about Tracy's approach to end-of-life care here: Caring for the Dying with an Open Heart.


Don't forget to care for yourself

Supporting a dying person and dealing with death makes us face our own mortality. It often brings up feelings of loss, painful memories, and fear.

And dealing with those emotions can be even more difficult when you're trying to stay strong for a grieving family. It's important for health care aides to look after themselves, too, and find ways to de-stress and re-charge.

You'll definitely learn about the importance of self-care in health care aide training. Common strategies include talking with a counsellor, grief support group, close friend, or another HCA who understands how you feel.

Attending the patient's funeral, and checking in with their family afterward, can also provide relief and a sense of closure.

Each scenario is different. But remember to take some time to work through your own feelings—and that it's normal to experience a wide range of emotions when saying goodbye to a patient.

Remember: the best thing you can do to cope with a patient's death is to care for them as compassionately as possible during the final transition.

Experienced health care provider, Rynae Golke, has this advice for supporting a dying person and their family:

"Many caregivers find peace in knowing that they were able to provide dignity, comfort, and tender care to a patient and their family during their last days. Doing your very best work for the patients who need you most is sometimes the healthiest way to cope with the impending loss."


Interested in becoming a Health Care Aide?

Herzing College Winnipeg offers a comprehensive 5-month Health Care Aide program. The program is taught by experienced nurses, and includes an 8-week practicum in a Winnipeg care home.

If you're interested in learning more, chat live with an Admissions Advisor right now. Or, click below to explore the program and request information by email. We're here to help!

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