How the Stages of Grieving are Like a Nursing Shift

Stories - Mood MeterNearly every nurse is familiar with the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross stages of grief… Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. A person progresses through each stage to get to the point of Acceptance.

Have you ever thought that these stages could apply to a nursing shift, too? They say the stages can apply to just about anything, so maybe it could help nurses to understand their feelings at different parts of the shift.

Of course, this is tongue in cheek, and grief isn’t something to laugh at. However, it is striking how closely the stages of grief can follow the stages a nurse may go through on their nursing shift.

The Denial Stage

We all know the feeling of trudging onto the unit, getting ready for our upcoming shift. At this point, we are in denial.

Do we really have to do this? Maybe I can just go home? Maybe we’ll be overstaffed. Maybe everyone will show up. Maybe my assignment will be an easy one.

This is where we deny that we have to get to work. We want to go home or have a cake assignment, but the reality of nursing is that we need to get past our misgivings and get ready for our shift.

The Anger Stage

Some nurses feel anger, but not all. When we look at the assignment board or who we are following or who has called off again, we may feel anger over what we assume will be a crappy shift.

Anger can also follow when we realize the leaving nurse hasn’t done all the work they were supposed to do. Frustration sets in, but we smile like professionals and get it done.

For some nurses, anger can extend all the way through a shift, and this can be toxic. It helps to focus on your work and let the anger go if you can.

The Bargaining Stage

Bargaining is part of nurse culture. You go to your coworker and ask them to start your IV in room 12, and you will give pain medicine in room 14.

You may also bargain with your patients. Not that you are manipulating them, but you can say that getting out of bed is fine as long as someone is with them.

It is easy to bargain with yourself, too. You tell yourself that you will take that bathroom break after you chart on this one person, then it is after you give this one medicine, then it is after you call this doctor . . . pretty soon, the shift is over and you still haven’t gone.

The Depression Stage

Ah, depression. Depending on how you are feeling, it can pervade your whole shift. It tends to arise in the middle of the shift when you realize you aren’t possibly going to get everything done.

Depression can also be that sense of overwhelm you may feel when everything is going wrong. It is the hopeless feeling of drowning, and sometimes you need your coworkers to bail you out.

Try not to linger too long in depression because it is another toxic emotion that can lead to more stress and eventually burnout. It is hard to break this cycle, but talk to your manager if it becomes a problem.

The Acceptance Stage

Like those who grieve, some nurses never come to acceptance. They may feel euphoria when a shift is over, but is that really acceptance of the situation?

It is more like a continuation of denial. To truly come to the acceptance of your role, you need to learn to work through these stages and accept that you can do your job.

Nursing isn’t easy, and although it isn’t like grieving, it has a lot in common with the steps of loss. By keeping these in mind, you can eventually work your way to acceptance.

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