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Nursing Staff: A Source of Support When Facing a Loss

September 24, 2012

The death of a loved one can be particularly hard for those who were involved in their day-to-day care. According to new research from Penn State University, this painful transition can be eased by existing support from nurses and other medical professionals. "What we know is that the caregiver's primary contact with the health care system is during brief office visits [for the patient]," said Janice L. Penrod, professor of nursing and director of the Center for Nursing Research. "Our goal is to develop an assessment that is fast and efficient to give us a snapshot of that caregiver so that we can at least identify needs and, if not intervene during that brief office visit, give them information and a referral to help them smooth the course."

Penrod and her colleagues interviewed 14 caregivers after the death of the family member they were caring for, asking about how each one was coping with the loss. They found that coping with the death of a loved one isn't something moved through step by step, but instead in a way similar to riding a roller coaster — some moments better than others, some much worse. Penrod details four stages: sensing disruption, challenging normal, building a new normal and reinventing normal (traditionally known as the bereavement period). Said Penrod, "This is the groundwork for understanding how caregiving proceeds over a trajectory of time so that we can better intervene to support caregivers across that trajectory…We have to understand the red flags and the cues to understand when a caregiver is approaching a state of distress so that we can intervene in a timely fashion."