Updated January 2023
Death and dying are everyday realities for personal support workers. Many PSWs care for seniors in their homes, or in long-term care facilities, where an estimated 20 per cent of residents pass away each year.
PSWs often provide end-of-life care, where they specialize in helping clients (and their families) with life's final transition. But despite all of this direct experience, personal support workers still struggle with loss when a client dies.
In some cases, the death may be expected because the client is already in palliative care. In other instances, it may come as a real shock. No matter what, it is never easy to lose a client, especially if you've been working with them for a considerable length of time and have built a friendship—as PSWs often do.
How will you handle loss as a PSW? Where should you turn for support? How should you behave with grieving family members?
In this post, we offer PSWs-in-training some words of advice for coping with the death of a client.
There is no "right" way to feel
Many factors influence the way you may react to the death of a client. Your cultural background, personal beliefs, and the depth of the PSW-client relationship can all play a part in how you respond. It's important to accept and validate your emotions, whatever they may be, and take time to process those feelings.
There are no "rules" when it comes to grieving the loss of a client. You may only have known them for a short time, and yet feel very hard hit by the loss. On the other hand, you may have worked with a particular client for years, and feel strangely at peace when they pass.
Our emotional responses to death can be very unpredictable. PSW training includes detailed instruction on palliative care and how to support someone who is dying—but there really is no way to prepare students for the moment of death itself. Your emotions could range from profound sadness to anger to shock, or even a sense of numbness.
The first step in coping with loss is to embrace your individual experience, resist making comparisons or judgments, and then move on to working through those emotions in healthy ways.
Supporting family members at the point of death
If your client's death was expected, you will have had several conversations with family members about the palliative process and subsequent steps. But this doesn't mean they will be fully prepared when the moment comes. And when death happens unexpectedly, PSWs are often called upon to provide a special kind of support to shocked, bereaved family members. This can be extremely challenging, particularly when the PSW is also suffering.
However, helping others through those difficult moments can help strengthen PSWs, giving them something important to focus on—a crucial role to play. This role includes being there for the family, listening closely to their needs, and providing comfort and assistance wherever possible.
If it's appropriate, you may attend the funeral of your client, and keep in touch with the family afterward. The sense of continuity and shared experience can ease the burden of loss for both caregiver and family.
Helpful self-care rituals for grieving PSWs
The daily schedule for PSWs at a LTC facility or home-care company is often very busy; however, it is key to find time to grieve and process the loss of a client somewhere in all the hustle and bustle.
Taking time to grieve is a crucial form of self-care for personal support workers, and can involve several different approaches, such as:
- Attending the funeral of the client who has passed away
- Keeping in touch with family members in the days and weeks that follow
- Talking with colleagues about your sense of loss, and what you'll miss most about your client
- Reflecting on the ways in which you eased your client's suffering and made their final transition as comfortable as possible
- Dwelling on positive moments spent with your client, or stories they told you about their life
- Seeking a counselling session or two to talk through your emotions and learn healthy ways to process your grief
Yes, death is a regular part of working as a personal support worker. But that doesn't mean losing a client ever feels "routine." PSWs often form very close bonds with the people they support—a natural result of working so closely, and in such personal ways, with clients.
Finding ways to process loss, and allowing yourself time to grieve, are important skills for every PSW who wants to build a successful, long-lasting career in health care.
Interested in learning more about starting a PSW career?
Consider the Personal Support Worker training offered by Herzing College in Ottawa and Toronto. This diploma takes less than 12 months to complete and includes an internship.
Visit the program page to see a detailed list of courses included in the program, learn about admissions, or chat live with a friendly advisor. We're here to help!