What To Say And What Not To Say To A Grieving Person


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As a receptionist you will deal with the death of patients. It is often very sad when say a young patient dies, a teenager that had their life in front of them taken away, a parent leaving a young family behind, or the elderly patient that used to come in with cakes every week for everyone – we all have our favourite patients and their death no matter what age can often be very sad and have a big impact on many staff within the practice.

As a Practice are you the Receptionists made aware of patient that has recently died? Are you informed of such or do you just find out by chance.

It is important that you are giving such information as you often will be the first person that the grieving person will be talking to. How you handle that telephone call or face to face conversation will made a big impact on the grieving person.

For a new receptionist this could be the first time that they are faced with such an incident. At your practice do you have policies for such a delicate issue? Family members of the deceased will be coming into the surgery to pick up death certificates, and to perhaps see the doctor.

As a Receptionist how would you deal with this?

I asked new Receptionists this very question and some felt comfortable that they could approach the person and give them words of comfort. Others would often say “I would not know what to say” and “I would be afraid of saying the wrong thing so therefore would not say anything at all”

As a Receptionist you could be the first avenue of comfort to the grieving person. No longer are the excuses “I don’t know what to say” or I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing” acceptable. Some people might say “Ignorance is bliss” but when it comes to consoling the bereaved, ignorance is certainly not “bliss”

In your role as a Receptionist would you say something to the grieving person or would you not feel confident enough to say anything at all?

Often people want to say something to the grieving person but are unsure of what to say so will actually not say anything at all in fear of upsetting the person.

Remember, grieving the loss of a loved one is the worst pain that someone can endure. Be respectful and polite. Don’t discount anyone’s feelings. Even if someone puts on a brave face and looks like they are handling it well, don’t assume that the person is.

Show that you care.

Here are some suggestions at things that you could say to someone who is grieving

  • I am so sorry to hear of your loss.

Making an acknowledgement that you are aware of their loss will mean such a lot to the person. This often is the simplest and most effective thing to say. It also shows respect

  • You and your family are in my thoughts

Especially if you know other members of the family.

  • I can’t imagine how painful this must be for you

You can’t begin to know how this person is feeling, even if you have lost someone yourself in your life, everyone deals with grief and loss in different ways.

  • She/he was so nice – she/he will be missed by so many people.

If the person that has died was special to you or any of your team in any way – share that with the person – tell them how special they were, share a story if you have one like they used to bring you cakes in each week, or they always had a smile on their face when they came to the surgery. This will be a comfort to the person listening.

Here are some things that you should not say to someone who is grieving

  • Do not say – “I know how you feel”

Its simple  – you have no idea how they are feeling. Losses cannot be compared.

  • Do not say – “You’ll get through it – just be strong”

At this moment in time the one thing they do not feel is strong.

  • Do not  say – “don’t feel bad”

Of course they feel bad and it’s totally normal to do so.

  • Do not say – “I understand”

You cannot possible understand how that specific individual is handling their loss.

  • Do not say – “Time will heal all wounds”

Because for the grieving individual, imagining life without their loved one is, well, at that point unimaginable.

  • Do not tell the person how you would feel in their place

They just don’t want to hear it – or need to hear it. It’s not about you!

  • Do not say – At least they didn’t suffer (in the event of a sudden death)

It certainly didn’t make it easy on the person standing there in front of you and at that moment in time it is no comfort to them. They are still grieving their loss.

  • Do not say – He/she is in a better place

What they person would pick up from that message is – better than here with me!

The common thread in the statements above (and many more like them) is that while most may be said in an attempt to comfort, absolutely none of these statements will console anyone.

As Receptionists I am sure that you are compassionate and you do deal with the bereaved in a professional manner. But it is important that when any new Receptionist starting at your Practice has appropriate training in this very delicate matter and that they get it right.

And most important if the grieving person does not want to share, then you should respect their wishes and give them some space. You have done your best to show your respect for their loss.

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When a Patient Dies


Does your Surgery have a policy when a patient dies?

You might ask why you might need a policy on this – but it is extremely important in various areas. Let me share these with you.

When one of your patients dies you will probably be notified by one of the following

  • A member of family or a friend
  • A Carer
  • The local hospital (usually comes in the form of a letter or fax)
  • The Out Of Hours Service
  • A Nursing Home (this will normally come via a telephone call)
  • The Health Visitor from your own Surgery (if they were caring for the patient at home)
  • Local Health Authority (the patient might had died in another area/country)
  • You might see it in the local paper under the births deaths column.

COMPUTERS RECORDS

The next step is to record the death on your computer records. If your system does not do all of these automatically you will need to ensure that they are taken off.  Ensure that the patient is taken off any clinics that might generate recall letters such as

  • Flu Clinic
  • Diabetic Clinic
  • Asthma Clinic
  • Blood Pressure Clinics and so on.

If your surgery is mostly computer run it is still very important to make sure that an entry is made in the paper notes.

How does your Surgery record patient deaths?

TRUE STORY

I worked in a surgery before we have our death protocol in place where a very upset wife phoned to say that a letter had been sent out to her husband to have his flu vaccination done – he had died 3 months before. Although someone had entered that he was deceased on his records he had not been taken off the flu recall.

Link up any close member of their family and add to their records that they have been recently bereaved – this will help the Doctor if a member of the family comes in to see them. There is nothing worse than the Doctor asking after the deceased patient. And believe me this has happened on several occasions.

Ensure than any future surgery appointments are cancelled.

Remove patient details for any routine repeat prescriptions.

TRUE STORY

It is important that you put a stop to any further prescriptions – I am happy to say that it didn’t happen at my Surgery but there have been surgeries that have had people coming in to request repeat prescriptions for deceased patients and because they had not got a policy in place the prescriptions were issued – several times

Who you should informed of the deceased patients death will depend on where the patient died.

If The deceased Patient dies at home / or other place please check to see if they have any future hospital appointments booked.

The  most important thing you should check with your local hospital to see if they had any outstanding hospital appointments.

Ask the hospital to check if the deceased patient had any hospital transport booked. Why?

TRUE STORY

Again before our Surgery policy was put in place we had a deceased patient who’s funeral was taking place one Thursday morning – the wife of the deceased heard a knock at the door and thinking it was the undertakers she opened the door to find that hospital transport was there to take the deceased patient for his hospital appointment. Now can you see the importance of ensuring that all future appointments are cancelled?

WHO YOU SHOULD INFORM WITHIN THE SURGERY?

It is important for all staff to be made aware of the death of any patient. How do you record the death of a patient in your surgery?

  • Inform the Doctor
  • Inform the Health Visitor (in the event of a child or pregnant mother)
  • Inform the Health Visitor (in the event that they were due to start visiting the patient)
  • Inform any other healthcare professional that might have a reason to be in contact with the deceased patient.

The best way for this is to send an internal email – and if necessary put it in the message book.

When we reviewed our policy on deceased patients I designed a form that had to be completed. We had a member of staff that had the responsibility of ensuring that everyone was informed of the death. Each section had to be completed or ticked and at the end of the form a surgery supervisor had to sign it too – and this copy was then scanned onto the patient’s records and the paper copy placed in their medical records.

You can design your own form but an idea on what we had on our form:

  • Patients Name and Address
  • DOB (date of birth)
  • Place of Death (ie home/hospital/other)
  • Computer code entered (RIP code)
  • Deduction Requested (deduction from surgery list)
  • Next of Kin (entry made on their notes)
  • Hospital Notified – if applicable (I recommend that this should be done in a fax/email and not verbal.)
  • Hospital Transport Cancelled
  • Surgery Appointments cancelled
  • Doctor informed
  • Health Visitor Informed
  • District Nurse Informed
  • Other staff informed
  • Prescriptions Stopped
  • RIP Message on Notes
  • Records returned to the Health Authority
  • Any other areas that might be applicable to your Surgery

 I hope you have found this helpful. The important thing is to ensure that family / friends are not subjected to any more upset because their loved ones are still on your surgery system as still living.

REMEMBER:  This will be the last thing you will do for the deceased patient – show them the dignity they deserve.

I did go on to have an “alert” board where we also put this information. You can read this on  my blog :

Patients With Special Needs (Special Needs Board) http://t.co/wnWKmxHV