Patient grief and the safety of doctors and nurses

A patient’s grief can threaten the safety of health care providers when it crosses into rage.

Emergency physician Edwin Leap illustrates some concerning instances:

In one instance, family members became angry because we did not leave the body in the ER for eight hours so that everyone could come and pay their respects. (Which I always thought was the purpose of a funeral home.) In another, a family was angry because we did not allow everyone back into the room during the resuscitation of their cancer-stricken loved one; a resuscitation the family insisted upon, and which required rescinding hospice status. From observing their demeanor, their presence would have caused total chaos in the room. And I say that as someone who doesn’t mind family watching me work a cardiac arrest.

Grief is certainly an understandable reaction, and something doctors frequently encounter in the hospital. But when it inappropriately escalates into rage, and threatens the safety of doctors and nurses, everybody loses.

I cited a post recently detailing how health professionals are vulnerable to patient attacks. Bringing the issue to light is one way that we can better ensure the safety of caregivers.

But Dr. Leap puts violent threats from grieving family members in a different context:

Most tragically, however, this behavior by adult children entirely dishonors the memory of the family they purport to love. I would be cut to the quick if I thought my children were acting that way as I lay dying, or after I had died.

Threatening doctors and nurses is bad enough. Doing so in the setting of a family member’s death is truly tragic.

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  • Healthymagination

    Dealing with grief is always hard. It is easy to see why family members might take out their grief and anger on the doctor. This is why strong communication and empathy is so important in the health space. We talk about similar topics on our blog and facebook (


    I have to deal with difficult families on a daily basis. I agree, sometimes it is simply not safe to be in the same room with a disturbed family. Over the years I have observed several types of families in the inpatient settings:

  • LWilliams

    These are examples why support staff (psych RNs, MSWs, chaplains, etc) are important to have available in these situations. Grief is an uncomfortable, passive emotion–anger expressed, on the other hand, feels better to many. The support staff–using all their empathy tools–may help the family members in ways that not only help the immediate situation, but for years to come. For everyone: realizing that anger is just the flip side of fear, helps.

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