How to cope with mortality and come back tomorrow without falling apart.


I still remember the unusual quiet that fell over the unit that morning as I clocked in for my shift. As I walked past the hallway, my eye caught a little butterfly postcard on the door. To an unknowing visitor, it was nothing. But seeing that butterfly, I knew what lay behind, and my heart sank. The friendly gossip suddenly fell flat, and tears were being brushed away.  I ached for the family and my team who were experiencing their worst day. Death had come to visit.

When you become a neonatal nurse practitioner, you wanted to help every family. Save every baby. Prevent dying and death like a superhero. However, life teaches us that is not always reality. As an NNP, you may just have experienced your first loss or another devastating death of a patient, and while emotionally falling apart is not an option, you can create meaningful ways to survive. Here’s how:


1. Acknowledge the grief

When death happens, the family’s response may not mirror yours, and that is ok. The pain of grieving is not something to be brushed away; it has to be acknowledged that it is there because it clings to people differently.

The closer emotionally you are to an event, the more critical it is to validate what happened. Your grief is just as important as the family’s grief, and for you to heal and continue working safely, you must acknowledge the pain that you are feeling.


2. Know when to reach out for help

To survive a difficult situation, it means you need to be aware of when your grief becomes complicated and unbearable. It may seem obvious in other coworkers and family members, but it can happen to you as well.

The Mayo Clinic explains complicated grief as:

  • Feelings of numbness
  • Believing you were the cause of the death or could have prevented it
  • Isolation from friends and family
  • Overwhelmed emotions and burnout
  • A loss of purpose


3. Verbalize what you feel

The days of “Suck it up, buttercup” are over. NNP’s do not have to be stoic and unfeeling; you can be a human being and share what you’re feeling.

When you speak about the pain and the grief, you can start the process of healing. Dr. Robert McKelvey, Oregon Health and Science University, found that nurses who were able to share openly and talk in a debriefing process coped better through grief.

The ones who held their emotions inside struggled more profoundly and often had more physical symptoms.


4. Create your own grieving rituals

The Association of American Medical Colleges recommends that each person has a toolbox of how to process grief. Here are some simple ones:

  • Create a meaningful ritual to bring closure. This may be something as simple as stopping for a moment of silence or placing a small flower in a stream to say goodbye.
  • Doing yoga can help to focus your mind on breathing and calmness.
  • Journaling the raw emotions in a book to help you express what happened.
  • Write small thank-you notes of gratitude to teammates who assisted you through difficult times.
  • High-intensity exercises, such as running or cardio, to burn off feelings of irritation and inadequacy.
  • Quiet times alone for yourself for prayer and religious activities


5. Accept that grief will come again

Death is not a one-time visitor; it shows up again and again. This fact is the reality of life, and what makes the moments these babies have on earth to be so valuable.

You cannot save every child, but you can make a difference in the love and care that you give.  

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”  Dalai Lama

Each day, take the opportunity to touch a family’s life forever in a positive way.


What grieving rituals have helped you before? Share them in the comments; we’d love to learn together!