Being a CNA and dealing with a client's death is hard

Being a CNA and dealing with a client's death is hard

Ama Adepa Gryn
Ama Adepa Gryn
Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

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Dealing with the death of a client, resident, or patient can be really tough. Sometimes, as a CNA, you may feel alone in your grief. That's why we asked Ama Adepa Gryn to tell us about her most recent experiences as a CNA dealing with the death of a client.

It's my 3rd time losing a client

This is the third time that I have lost a client. You’d think that after years of working as a nursing assistant, I would be more comfortable as a CNA dealing with the death of a resident or the death of a client. I'm not immune to the powerful feelings of grief and loss that overwhelm me when clients pass away.  I feel so much sadness for the client who has passed away and for their family.

Why do I still care?

My question, however, is, “Why do I still care?” After all, CNA dealing with death and dying clients and residents is just a routine part of life as a nursing assistant, home health aide, personal care aide or any other type of professional caregiver. I have gone through these situations a couple of times in the past. Usually, I am on the schedule a couple of nights a week and by the time clients wake up in the morning, I’m gone. So why does it hurt so much? Through self-reflection, I realized that when we work as caregivers, there is a part of ourselves that becomes permanently connected to the individuals we serve (and their families). As caregivers, we provide comfort, company, and hope to clients and in turn, clients become a part of the stories of our lives. How does a CNA deal with death and dying when losing a client hurts this much. Losing them hurts because we lose a part of who we are.

Separating my emotions is hard

For many of us, we love not only our jobs but also our clients. If you have been called to serve as a caregiver, it's hard to separate your emotions from your work. Being a caregiver entails serving with generosity and having an open heart, and it is natural and human to feel sad when a client passes away. A CNA dealing with the death of a resident faces the same pain as anyone else facing the loss of someone they care about. Even though I don't ever want to feel this pain again, I understand that death and dying are inevitable and that I will encounter them often throughout my CNA career.

Remaining inspired as a CNA dealing with death 

I have chosen to keep working in the nursing profession as a nursing assistant because working with older persons offers me daily inspiration and the most powerful encouragement that I can receive. It's all just part of life as a CNA. CNAs routinely deal with loss and it's hard. It's part of why caregiving is so much more than just a job.  I accept it. Above all, I choose to keep going because I know that I have the ability to improve the lives of people in my care.

Stages of grief 

There’s one thing that most of us learn as we get older: at some point, we will all encounter the death of someone close, but no one teaches you how to cope with death. There is no book or universal guideline that can prepare you for the death of a client, or to deal with its companion, grief. However, something helpful to us all is being able to understand grief through a seven-stage framework.

  1. Denial. This was the first stage of the initial shock when I was told the news. I felt numb and in disbelief, and I couldn’t immediately process the reality of the loss. To some degree, the shock provided emotional insulation from feeling overwhelmed all at once.
  2. Pain and guilt. As the shock wore off, the raw pain settled in. In addition to the pain, there was a feeling of guilt. I felt myself wondering “Is there anything I wish I had said or done differently? Are there things that I wish had happened better or more often?” I felt disoriented and unsure of myself. My life felt off-balance and, at times, chaotic.
  3. Anger and bargaining. Then, I slowly began feeling angry. I felt anger at the situation itself, and I sometimes lost my patience with others. At this stage, it’s also normal to bargain by making “If only…” or “What if…” statements, but this is a crucial time to try and reel in the feelings of despair and anger before they become harmful. 
  4. Depression, reflection, and loneliness. After the reality of a client’s passing fully settled in, and I realized that my client wasn’t coming back, I felt blank and hopeless. I went through the motions without being able to fully engage with my daily tasks. I had flashbacks every so often, of small and happy moments together, but most days felt like a haze.
  5. Acceptance. In time, I began adjusting to my new reality that my client was physically gone. I accepted that this was a permanent change and that I needed to understand that and move on. Now that the most painful emotions were dealt with, I began to notice an uplifting in my soul.
  6. Reconstruction. When I started feeling like myself again, I knew I had to go back to work. I had a sense that everything was going to be okay again. It was important to get back to a routine and get back to doing what I was supposed to do, which was taking care of my clients who needed me. Though the memory of my loss was in the back of my mind, it was easier to smile, laugh, and move through my day.
  7. Hope. At this point, I learned to accept the reality of my client’s passing even though it was still hard from time to time. As a healthcare worker, death is a part of our reality. Knowing this doesn’t make it any easier to process a client’s death, but we all have to learn to cope and move forward with our lives. Holding onto a sense of hope was what helped to lift me out of the grieving process. For all of us, life doesn’t end at death. It’s important to focus on the little joys in life and to get excited forward to the good times to come. Know that in the end, you will find bliss again in the experience of living.

How grief affects our minds and bodies

It’s normal to feel a range of emotions. I know I did. My reactions ranged from numbness and shock all the way to anguish and despair. There is no such thing as a typical reaction to death, and oftentimes, the emotions can fluctuate for months afterward. All the following experiences are all part of the normal spectrum of reactions to grief, which can last up to a year.

Yearning. As a survivor, you may want to reunite with the person who passed away in some way. I worked through this emotion by turning my yearning into a reflection of the happy memories and the good times we had together.

Deeply felt emotions. Deep sadness and regret can ebb and flow. For me, it came in waves. Some days were better than others. Once, I had to take a time-out from what I was doing because I was hit by an overwhelming wave of anguish. Through the grieving process, I had to work through feelings of anxiety, anger, loneliness, pain, and guilt.

Vivid memories. It’s common to have uncontrolled and vivid flashbacks, through mental images or sounds, to the times you spent with your client. Sometimes, it was a smell or a specific sight that would set off memories. Other times, it would be triggered by the time of day that I’d normally see my client. It’s important to be patient with yourself and take a short break to recover from the flashbacks. 

Somatic disturbances. In addition to feeling sad, my grief caused a range of physical reactions like sleep problems, changes in appetite, and heightened sensitivity to light and noise. You may also experience digestive difficulties, dry mouth, a weaker immune system, exhaustion and fatigue, or restlessness and agitation.

Denial. It can take a long time to truly accept that a client has passed away. At times, I forgot that my client was gone, only to relive the reality when there was a reminder.

Apathy. It’s normal to react to death by withdrawing or disengaging at times while grieving. There were times when I found it difficult to concentrate on my work and my relationships. It’s also normal to experience bouts of irritation or exasperation at others. I learned to use these reactions as an opportunity to practice patience and self-compassion.

Emotional surges. Although some of the worst emotions and disturbances softened and faded as time passed, there were little things that brought a reawakening of raw emotions. It’s normal to feel more sensitive to the grief during times like birthdays and anniversaries, significant holidays, or events that you know your client would have enjoyed.

Dealing with death is a difficult, exhausting, and unpredictable process. The death of a client represents a major change in your life, and it’s normal to feel a lot of emotions that can appear to be conflicting at times. However, I knew that all these reactions are normal, and I knew I wasn’t alone. I was able to lean on my colleagues and relationships for support and comfort. Over time, the grief lifted and I was able to accept and move past my client’s passing.

Self-care tips for CNAs and caregivers

CNA classes don’t always teach coping strategies. So when the time comes, you may find yourself wondering, “How do I cope when my patient dies?Sometimes it might feel like there isn’t enough support for grieving CNAs and caregivers in the workplace. Unfortunately, death and dying are grim realities in the careers of all healthcare professionals. That’s why I realized the importance of developing coping skills as a CNA and caregiver.

Be prepared. Now that we understand the normal range of emotions that come with the grieving process, as well as the events that can trigger those emotions, we can anticipate how and when we may react. It was helpful for me to be able to identify my current stage of grief so that I could understand what stages would be coming next.

Give yourself the time and space to feel sad. First, take a much-needed break. If you need to take a few days off to recover, most supervisors will be happy to give you a break. I used my time off to treat myself to things that soothed my mind. Take a long bath, schedule a visit to the salon, practice yoga or meditation, or work off your stress at the gym. Sometimes a distraction can be helpful to move through the worst of your emotions.

Don’t try to bottle up your emotions. We may be caregivers, but we’re also human. It’s normal to take time to process and work through emotions. Think about how you can find a healthy way to express your emotions and manage your stress. Would it help to light a candle, write out your thoughts in a journal, paint a nature scene, or go for a long walk?

Connect with your support system. Now is the time to reach out to your loved ones. I made sure to spend quality time with family, close friends, and trusted colleagues. If you need more help, consider seeking professional help through a bereavement counselor or psychologist. In some cases, the cost of these services may be covered by your employer.

Dealing with death is a challenging experience and it’s part of every CNA and caregiver’s professional life. Grief is a normal and healthy response to loss. It’s important to understand the signs, stages, and coping skills to deal with death. By doing so, I was able to identify and defuse negative emotions, find comforting rituals to help me through dark times, and learn to cope with death in a way that works for me. It’s a conscious decision to choose to continue moving forward. Caregiving is my calling, and my work helping others is not finished yet.

Edited by Victoria Young, Digital Marketing Apprentice


Ama Adepa Gryn

Ama Adepa Gryn is a CNA graduate of the Fomen Nursing Assistant Academy, a full-time college student studying at Montgomery College, and has expertise in both personal financial management and caregiver recruiting.

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Sharmeka Fair said:

Thanks for the info!

Debra said:

Am currently employed through a small agency, have been taking care of my lady for the last 3 years doing private duty in a assisted living facility, Her time here is almost up and was looking for tips and am interested in what jobs are out there