If you find yourself a recent medical graduate on the hunt for physician or nurse practitioner jobs, you will almost certainly have been made aware of the mental and physical strain that working in healthcare exerts. There is no getting around this essential fact. Working in healthcare is tough, it involves long hours, and those hours can be during the night as well as the day. Health Jobs Nationwide (visit website here), a healthcare jobs recruitment service, say that candidates are rarely uninformed about this aspect of the job, but something which does tend to come as a shock is how to communicate – and even comfort – the dying and their families.

The reasons many recruits are so unprepared for this aspect of working in healthcare is that the experience of death is usually pretty alien to young people. Sure, they might have had a dying relative, but comforting someone you know well is quite a different matter from comforting somebody who is a patient.

This is not to say that a cold and professional approach is the way to go. Healthcare workers – especially nurses – do often build up a relationship with dying patients and so communicating with warmth is certainly part of the job.

Conversational Narcissism

Faced with the situation of dying patient and a grieving family enduring the loss (or upcoming loss), it is understandable that healthcare professionals can get a bit lost for words. It’s a strange situation, and one that the majority of the population will never face. Nevertheless, it is part of the duties of a healthcare worker. The danger when faced with such situations is to fall into what is known as conversational narcissism.

Simply put, conversational narcissism is the tendency to steer a conversation towards your chosen topic, to do most of the talking and to therefore avoid what you would rather not discuss. This is something that frequently happens when healthcare professionals are comforting the dying or their families. This is understandable. It’s a tough situation be in and the chances of things becoming excessively awkward are emotional is high.

A good example of conversational narcissism could be following: When consoling a grieving family member, you might say, “I understand, when I lost my mother…”. This is you steering the conversation onto yourself. Certainly, this wasn’t done out of disregard or malice – instead, you probably thought it was a good way to bond – but nevertheless, this was the inappropriate time. Avoiding conversational narcissism means avoiding things like that.

How to Speak to Those in Grief

The method you should follow when talking to those in grief involves two important things to keep in mind. First, you need to get comfortable with silence and be able to simply listen. This is not easy. A grieving person coming to terms with a very recent loss often sounds like they are having some sort of schizophrenic argument with themselves! They are processing, however, and you need to let them do it.

The second part is, naturally enough, saying something yourself. But what should you say? Have you known them well? Do they share a religion or belief system with you? This should give you an idea of what is appropriate to say. Universal words of consolation – for example, “I’m so sorry for your loss/what you’re going through” – are certainly useful and a good place to start, but you’ll need to make sure it doesn’t sound mechanical.

Inevitably, this is a tricky business. But by avoiding talking about yourself and being sure to listen in silence for a period, you can at least afford them the respect and comfort that they are due.

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