Coping With Grief: A Guide for Healthcare Workers

Healthcare workers often shuffle self-care to the bottom of their to-do list. A unique set of pressures compounds the usual stressors of day-to-day life. 

Providing care to patients and loved ones is the main focus of hospital healthcare workers. Kindness and compassion are the cornerstones of healthcare work. Yet it is essential to know how to process the grief that inevitably arises from loss when patients die. 

Even as society strives to care for the sick among us, we cannot forget the well-being of those on the frontline of medicine. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly exposed this as a pressing need. If you have experienced loss and are struggling with ways to cope, there is hope for your mental health.

If you are having a hard time coping with grief or experiencing anxiety or depression, Healing Breaths’ evidence-based SKY program may be able to help. The SKY program has demonstrated the potential to reduce clinical anxiety in just 3 days. Click here to speak with one of our wellness experts.

What Is Grief?

The first step of any healing journey is understanding what you are up against. You may think you know all about grief, but do you know how it applies to life as a hospital healthcare worker?

Grief is normal, not a sign of weakness or unprofessional behavior. Experiencing grief means that you’ve connected with another person. And when providing medical care, there are plenty of opportunities to connect.

Too many people imagine that grief is a one-and-done experience. In truth, grief is a process that can take you on a journey that looks like a spiral rather than a straight line. It involves emotions and actions that are part of self-love and healthy living.

A Note About ‘Normal’

As a society, we often use the word “normal” without much thought. In reference to grieving, it simply means that everyone experiences grief. That’s what makes it normal.

It does not mean there is only one way through the grieving process. In fact, there are as many different ways to grieve as there are people in the world. Maybe even more.

The simple truth: How you mourn and grieve is normal. How you feel in the face of loss is your reality. No one can invalidate the grief that you experience.

Stages of Grief

Understanding the power of grief is an excellent place to start healing. Coping with loss helps fight against the possibility of burnout.

It is important to have an awareness of the stages of grief. Though not linear, the stages are real and should be recognized.

The stages of grief include:

  • Denial: Generally considered the first of the grief stages, denial usually occurs right around the time of loss. Many people feel afraid, shocked, or even numb emotionally. These emotions can create avoidance or an unwillingness to discuss the loss.
  • Anger: Thought of as the second stage, anger does not have a time limit. It may be a short experience or linger for many months. However long it lasts, anger can make you feel agitated, frustrated, and lonely.
  • Bargaining: This stage comes when looking for any meaning that may derive from the loss. It often lasts for the shortest time.
  • Depression: During depression, a person may feel overwhelmed with sadness. There may be a move toward isolation and withdrawal from familiar people and activities. Grieving people will typically experience this stage in ups and downs.
  • Acceptance: The so-called final stage of grief is acceptance. No longer will the sorrow of losing another person consume your thoughts. You will face the loss head-on and be able to move forward with life. 
  • Hope: While the stage of hope isn’t consistently recognized as a part of grieving, it is essential. Having hope can move us forward out of the grief that wants to consume our thoughts and emotions. It propels us towards more.

Understanding Empathy vs. Sympathy

Hospital healthcare workers realize that they are not alone in their grief. If you are feeling loss, likely, your co-workers are as well. Knowing how to respond to their grieving process can promote a positive culture of awareness that is healing for all.

Frequently when we encounter those experiencing grief, our natural response is to want to help. However, how we respond is important and can be a stepping stone toward healing.

Dr. Brene Brown has created a video comparing empathy and sympathy, and highlighting differences between empathetic and sympathetic responses. From this, we receive clear direction on how to respond to grief healthily.

Giving empathetic responses creates a culture of wellness, both in workplace settings and individual relationships. When treated with empathy, the grieving person is made to feel authentically heard and validated.

Dr. Brown states that we can train ourselves on how to best share empathy with others. Just like a muscle, empathy is a skill that can (and should) be strengthened. Here are some tips she shares in her video to help in that training:

  1. Perspective taking: If we choose to consider another person’s perspective, then we are walking in empathy. We must be willing to set aside our viewpoints to simply hear what another is feeling. In perspective taking, we see through their eyes and validate their experience.
  2. Staying out of judgment: Judging others is a negative act. It invalidates what they are feeling, essentially saying that their pain is not significant. While this may be our attempt to shield ourselves from the other’s sorrow, being closed off from their feelings only worsens the grief. Empathy chooses to refrain from invalidating comments that may enhance guilt. This means avoiding statements like “It’s not that big of a deal,” or “You really shouldn’t be upset.”
  3. Recognize emotions: When we connect with others who grieve, we see their emotions and recognize them as familiar. Look inside yourself and remember that you have experienced (or are experiencing) what they are feeling too. Be willing to name the emotions, fully acknowledge them, and authenticate them. Being empathetic will sound similar to “I hear the frustration in what you are saying. Is that correct?” or “It sounds like you are unhappy about this situation. I’m sorry.”
  4. Communication: Communicate in a way that expresses understanding of their emotions. Say things like “I’m sorry for the pain you are feeling. I understand how hard it is because I have gone through something similar.” You can even give a direct quote by Dr. Brown: “It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”

Practical Ways to Process Grief

The best way to give an empathetic response to others is to process your grief first. Choosing healthy self-care activities can improve the way you handle loss. Some ways to move forward in your healing journey are:

  1. Self-care: Taking care of our body, mind, and spirit is an all day, everyday activity. Choosing things like exercise, conversations with friends, and meditation can strengthen your ability to process grief and mourn healthily.
  2. Meditation: The benefits of meditation are far-reaching. Research shows that it can help our physical and mental health. One important thing to realize about meditation is that it is more than just relaxation. It is consciously choosing to do nothing yet remainIng alert and aware of what is around you. Through meditation, you can deepen your sense of peace and self-awareness. From this, grieving will flow naturally.
  3. Exercise: There is time to incorporate exercise into your day, even with a busy schedule. If you are on a break, take a short brisk walk outside, breathing the fresh air in and gaining perspective on life beyond work. Simply moving your hands and feet while doing paperwork can motivate blood flow and increase oxygen to your brain. However you incorporate it into your day, exercise is sure to improve your overall mental health.

How Healing Breaths Can Help

Implementing new coping methods can feel just as overwhelming as the grief itself. But you are not alone.

At Healing Breaths, our mission is “to nourish and energize healthcare professionals with self-care programs that strengthen resilience and restore a sense of purpose and community.” Bearing this in mind, we invite you to contact us today to learn more.

Healing Breaths is here to help hospitals as they strive to address issues of burnout and grief. We diligently focus on your well-being, ensuring a positive culture where you and your peers can connect and heal. Our work is grounded in proven, measurable results.

Contact us today to set up a time to talk by phone, or send us an email at