Hospice Pioneer Barbara Karnes Explains Why Healthcare Workers Shouldn’t View Death As a Failure

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For most healthcare workers, some trainings and teachings rely on the medical model that says death is a failure. If we don‘t change our perspective, we will “burn out.“

Like it the old fashioned way?

Barbara Karnes answers Tameka D.’s question about death during the pandemic.

Tameka asked: Barbara, Ive been a nurse for 20 years, and dont get me wrong, I love my job, but after going through a year of this pandemic, I just dont know anymore. Ive seen more people die during this past year than I have in all of the past 20 years. Throughout your career, youve seen people die all the time. What kept you from being discouraged or burned out by it all? 

Barbara’s answer:

Great question. First, what makes me different is that I made a conscious choice to work with people facing the end of their life. I made that decision based on my personal belief that everyone dies. We are programmed to die from the moment we are born, and death is not a failure. It’s the culmination of a life lived (maybe well, maybe not). 

For most healthcare workers, our training and teaching rely on the medical model that says death is a failure. Our focus is on taking care of diseases that people have, fixing people, and if we dont fix them – if death comes – then it is a failure of our ability to fight disease. 

If we consistently work with people who die, despite all we do to keep them alive, and we dont change our perspective of life and death, we will burn out. The overwhelming sense of failure will eat away at our selfconfidence and affect both our professional and personal lives. 

The COVID pandemic has created just this scenario with our healthcare workers. They witness multiple deaths each shift despite all their expertise to keep their patients alive. 

We cant change the seriousness and outcomes of COVID yet. Someday we will have better tools and more knowledge. For now, along with improvising and doing the best we can with what we do know, we must address our healthcare workers’ well-being. 

How do we care for ourselves as we interact with patients’ deaths?

Create a personal cleansing ritual at the end of your shift, even if no death has occurred. Here are a few ideas to consider:  

  • Wash off the energy and seek closure. When you arrive home, take your work clothes off and immediately get into the shower. Feel the water wash over your body, soap off not just the physical but imagine the feelings and thoughts you carried with you during the day. Wash them all off, then let the water flow over your clean body and see in your mind the water as a cleansing and healing force, that it is refreshing and stabilizing your being. Dry off and proceed to enjoy your evening. Let go of the day and build a new, balanced evening. 

  • Create a ritual of remembrance and release. As your ritual, you may have a special place, not necessarily an altar but a small space with a candle or a bud vase, a place of tribute. Light the candle or as many candles per death you have experienced during the day. Speak to the person, say whatever is in your heart, and thank them for coming into your life. Wish them well on their journey. Then blow out the candle or candles.  

  • Keep a journal in a special place. Write the name or just write a few words about the person or persons that died on your shift. You are acknowledging them, showing that they mattered, and giving them your blessings. With the closure comes release. You do not need to carry the people or their deaths with you. 

These are just a couple of ideas. Be creative and think of what would be meaningful to you to honor the patients you care for each day. How will you acknowledge their life and their passing? How will you send them on their way and release your emotional attachment to them? 

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