Dealing with grief and End of Life as a Personal Support Worker

Guest Post by Natrice Rese

It’s something that you are prepared for as a student.  It is understood that as a caregiver, a PSW, you will maintain a distance, a separation, a formal kind of relationship with your clients and residents.

But when you actually begin the job you quickly find out that it is not quite as easy to deal with when you can put faces, names and personalities to the residents you care for.  Close connections bring an affection for your clients and vice versa. 

Personally I found it hard to be at a distance: When you give total and personal support to residents you can’t help but have feelings of friendship, protection, and empathy that is by nature what a caregiver has in his or her “toolbag”.

I recall one particular lovely lady who was often in my care in the facility where I worked.   I will call her “Mary”. Mary had brilliant silver hair and very blue eyes, lots of smiles, laughs and mischievous looks. She was obviously loved by her family and had visits often.

Mary was dealing with many issues: she endured a stroke that limited her movement and mobility.  She also had dementia so she needed a lot of support, smiles, hugs, and conversation. Although Mary was confined to a wheelchair she was able to roll her chair around the halls and with one hand surprisingly strong. She was as continually busy as a small child is, always on the move, always into something – often trying to exit through doors, enter other residents rooms.

She could not respond to the staff but seemed to relax and enjoy being included in conversation and when given extra time as we were able, she glowed with the attention. .Extra time is difficult to find as the job of a PSW is busy but I enjoyed the chances often late at night when Mary didn’t sleep well, and kept the night shift company.  She would sit near the nurses station and chatter in her own way as we came and went.(All clients respond positively to personal attention.  We become their family in a way.)

Time passed. Mary was up and down, little things happened, sickness, more strokes, her health was deteriorating. Finally we were faced with the fact that Mary was not going to rally this time.

It’s the hardest thing to face when you arrive at work, get report, and hear that one of your residents is fading. It’s an odd position to be in, as a health care worker: you aren’t a family member, you are just a rotating staff member caring for Mary – supposed to just do the task, keep your head and your heart separate. Turns out, that’s really hard to do, and yet that’s what we’re faced with on a daily basis.

That is what is different about the job of front line staff in health care: Dealing with end of life happens to us over and over, somehow we have to cope with this part of a person’s life.   The pull on a caregiver heart is also very real.  Not only do you lose your resident/client, but you are expected to toss the feelings over your shoulder and continue your job.  That is difficult, especially when a patient was as special to me as Mary.

Mary’s son told us,

Mom lingered because she wanted us to spend this time here at the nursing home. Mom wanted us to know about her “other family” – the staff who cared for her and met her needs”.  When I heard that remark, it really warmed my heart, as it did for my co-workers and everyone involved. It was obvious to the family that we cared about “Mary”.

That statement made my day, and it made the day of all staff involved in “Mary’s” care.

 Improved support/counseling  needs to be given to caregivers dealing with grief and loss. Caregiving definitely leads to “caregiver burnout”.   

 When I am in need of care, at the end of my life, I hope that my care will include someone nearby (always) to keep me company, to reassure me, read to me, play favourite music, to ensure I am pain free and comfortable. It’s in my Advance Care Plan, and when my time comes, I hope it’s logistically possible!

Natrice Rese





Natrice Rese, Retired Personal Support Worker and Caregiver