One of the first questions you may ask yourself in your nursing career is “What to do when a patient starts crying.”
Everyone has their own forte’, and for some, providing emotional support to people in crisis can be an OMG WHAT DO I DO moment. It can be uncomfortable. It can be weird. It can be scary. It can be one of those situations you avoid at all costs.
But it doesn’t have to be! Some of the best nursing care you can provide can be in these moments. I learned some things that are very valuable when I started to find myself in this typical situation more frequently that I want to share with you.
Whenever people used to get emotional in front of me, my natural response was to try to make it better. I wanted them to stop being upset. I wanted to fix it, STAT. I felt inadequate if I could not say the perfect thing to them to remedy the situation. This left me feeling like a bad nurse and desperately avoiding emotional patients and family members. However, after I learned some things I realized how wrong that thought process was.
It is really important for you to know this: even if you have the most perfect response to them, you’re not going fix it. You’re not going to make it go away. You’re not going to take the pain away from their terminal cancer diagnosis. You’re not going to heal the anger in a family’s heart for their father not taking care of his blood pressure and ending up with a massive stroke and who is now dying. You can’t fix that with words. That pain is there and you cannot remove it. But you can comfort it.
It’s also important to know that they don’t expect you to fix this massive tragedy with words. They’re not sitting there, crying and waiting for their nurse to have the perfect verbal response to put them at ease. What they are yearning for is support. They are in desperate need of someone to just feel with them.
So, how does this look practically?
What to do when a patient cries?
The first step is to let go of that natural urge to fix the situation. Take a deep breath and let that go – you cannot fix this.
Outlined below are some simple steps that will help you answer the question “how to comfort a crying patient.”
I know it can be awkward, but being okay with silence and just being with someone who is hurting and not rushing them or yourself means a lot to someone. Many times, these patients or family members don’t want to burden others with their emotions. But they need to experience them. They need to feel them. You just being there, allowing silence and providing support that’s not rushing out of the room lets them know that their emotions are valid. They are important. They deserve time. And you are an awesome and supporting nurse, so you will provide that.
Acknowledge the situation.
Sometimes, people just need to hear that what they’re going through is tough. Hearing a nurse acknowledge how tough a situation is, that they’re going through a lot, can really validate someone. It can let them know that it is okay to be upset, sad, angry, or whatever emotions they’re going through because this is a hard situation. And we see and recognize it.
“I’m really sorry this happened,” with a hug or hand on the shoulder is much more supportive and powerful than people realize.
“I’m so sorry this is happening but I’m really glad you told me. I’m here to support you and your family. I’m here for you.”
Or even just grabbing a box of tissues, patting them on the back, and saying you’re sorry and allowing silence and support can be enough.
Take really good care of them or their loved one.
If they really trust you to do a good job with their loved one, that will put them at ease and support them by taking one big stressor off their plate. I don’t mean all of the technical stuff like getting all of your charting perfect, interpreting lab values, giving all of your meds precisely on time, or consulting with the interdisciplinary team. I mean the more basic stuff. Things like taking extra time to comb their hair, getting their favorite flavor of Jello, or trying to connect with them and make a joke to get them to laugh…that can really mean the world to someone. If they trust that they or their loved ones are safe and cared for in your hands, that itself provides emotional support.
I have taken care of patients where I did the above things. It didn’t feel like much to me because I wasn’t fixing anything, I wasn’t physically making anything better. I couldn’t actually see the impact I was having. However, when I did these things, I received the most emotional responses later in the shift or the next day. Tearfully, patients and family members have told me thank you for my love and care. Once I let go of fixing and started supporting, somehow my patients and their loved ones felt even more cared for.
Knowing what to do when a patient cries will give you strength and confidence to proceed with your shift even after an emotionally difficult time for you and your patient.
My next post will be an example of how I went through these steps. Stay tuned!
What kind of small, seemingly insignificant things have you done for a patient or their loved ones that you later found out meant the world to them?
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Joanna Janssen says
Sometimes just holding their hand and letting them tell you how scared and hopeless they feel can be the most supportive thing you can do. Often times, they will be tough in front of their family, but privately with the nurse, they can explore the depths of despair. No need to fix, but to offer some feedback of feelings and a comforting touch.