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Jen Rosio, University of Utah Health
Grief in Healthcare: Understanding and Coping
Caregivers in healthcare are often exposed to loss and grief. These experiences can leave us feeling sad, emotionally exhausted, and unsure how to proceed. Associate Director of the Resiliency Center Jake Van Epps helps us learn what to expect and strategies for recovery.

aregivers often get into healthcare because of an underlying desire to help heal people. That is why when caregivers lose patients, it can have a big emotional impact. Grief is a natural and normal human response to loss. Grief has a way of causing us to reflect on the value of the people or things that were lost or will be lost in the future. It is another example of what the Stress First Aid for Healthcare calls a “stress injury.”  A Stress Injury is when an experience impacts us emotionally for 3 or more days. It can be caused by the death of a family member or friend, the end of a relationship, or any other significant loss. Health professionals may experience grief over the loss of patients or co-workers.

Some events may be more likely to induce a grief stress injury in healthcare professionals. For example, when you have a longer relationship with the patient or their family; or when a patient reminds you of someone important. These cognitive intrusions across our professional boundaries into our personal lives can be challenging.

Grief stress injuries are important to acknowledge and address with intention. 

Why is it important? 

Like the other stress injuries, grief reactions can make going and being present at work difficult or at least require significantly more emotional labor. Waves of sadness, or “grief bursts,” are common and often associated with spontaneous crying or tearing up, or even just a general sense of emotional rawness. Sometimes symptoms can lead to questioning the sustainability of one’s current career path, and lead to dreading the possibility of experiencing more grief on the job.

Response: How do we address grief stress? 

Grief and sadness are appropriate and healthy responses to loss. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Many have heard about the stages of grief that include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Although those are common emotional experiences, grief is not a linear process, and we may experience any combination or cycle of those emotions and more. Simply noticing and perhaps naming how we feel is a more effective way to cope than trying to avoid or control the feelings.  

Timing can be different for each person as well. Sometimes people are struck by grief right away, but sometimes people do not experience grief until later, or not at all. When teams or individuals experience grief, it is important to be accepting of everyone’s response including your own.  

Grief can be a stress injury, but it is also a natural healing process. Grief is a time of heavy meaning-making in people’s lives. It tends to highlight people’s core values and emphasize them. Caregivers often report that reflecting on their experiences of grief changes their caregiving in meaningful ways, they think differently about patient care and learn from the experience. This meaning-making, along with active coping strategies, are often a path through grief.

For health care professionals, intentionally processing grief stress at work may lead to post-loss growth. 

There is also no timeline for grief recovery. The loss of a family member might take years to feel recovered from (if ever), while the loss of a patient might last a few weeks. Grief often occurs in waves or bursts where one moment you are going through your daily tasks, and the next you are overcome by sadness and loss. Some have found it helpful to track their grief in 3 ways: the intensity of grief bursts, the length of grief bursts, and the frequency of grief bursts. Grief is often experienced as intense, but by paying attention to how long the waves of grief are lasting and how frequently they occur change can be noticed over time. 

The following strategies can also be helpful when coping with grief: 

  • Notice and allow your emotions. Don’t try to avoid or bottle up your feelings. Instead, allow yourself to feel the full range of emotions that represent all the complicated parts of loss.

  • Talk to someone you trust. Sharing can help us to process and support each other and helps us feel connected during difficult moments in life.

  • Find healthy ways to cope with grief. Cut down on the things taking your energy and attention. Grieving takes time and energy, so use yours wisely. Engage in things that are meaningful, like spending time with a loved one, going outside for some physical activity, doing creative activities, being affectionate, playing or even crying. These are all evidence-based strategies for coping with stress.

  • Be patient with yourself. Grief is a process. It takes time and can’t be forced. It is a healthy response to difficult events. Practice self-care and allow yourself the time and space you need to heal. 

  • Make meaning. Not right away, but when the time comes, ask yourself how you want this loss to impact your life. Are there ways of honoring the loss, or the person who passed? Are there things you learned from this that will be important to pay attention to in the future? 

If you are struggling to cope with your grief, there are many resources available to help you. You can talk to your doctor, a therapist, or a grief counselor. There are also many support groups available for people who are grieving. 


Urgent resources for health care professionals: 

We have counselors available to help our community deal with tragic loss and to enable us to come to some level of understanding. If you’d like to talk to a counselor, please contact one of these options:

  • Employee Assistance Program (Blomquist Hale): 801-262-9619
  • Resiliency Center: resiliencycenter@hsc.utah.edu or 801-213-3403
  • Spiritual Care: 801-213-2484
  • HMHI Crisis Line (24/7): 801-587-3000 or call 988
  • HMHI Warm Line (8am-11pm): 801-587-1055

Jake Van Epps

Associate Director, Resiliency Center, University of Utah Health

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