I talk to dead people.

Tara Nipe wants to know why.
And she wants you to help her gain a better understanding of the reasons.

A PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Health and Society, my research interests are informed by my clinical practice as a registered nurse on a mixed medical specialty ward at one of Melbourne’s most acute tertiary hospitals.

A few years ago I undertook an empirical research Masters in Social Health, where I investigated why ICU nurses who speak to their brain-dead patients do so – the available research indicated it was because ICU nurses didn’t understand the idea of brain death and I disagreed.

In the process of this research I discovered that all my participants also spoke with somatically dead patients, something that is important but almost invisible in the literature. I’m currently investigating the cultural, spiritual, professional and ideological reasons underpinning the practice of health care practitioners who talk to their patients while performing death work.

I’m conducting interviews, but am also interested in written narratives about their practice by nurses, midwives and doctors who talk to patients any time after death. One of the problems so far has been that health professionals often find it difficult to write in a different style than patient notes – it’s my hope that those who read and write blogs will be more comfortable writing subjectively about their experiences.

Tara is looking to finish her data collection by mid-Febuary, and if you are a nurse, a doctor or a midwife interested in participating in this project, she is happy to take enquiries without any expectation of a participation commitment.

You can contact Tara directly via: t.nipe@student.unimelb.edu.au

Plus, she has provided a letter of invitation (pdf), outlining a little more about the project.
And, a handy guide to providing your narrative (pdf) that is worth reflecting on even if you are not interested in participating.

I am going to have a think about this one and will post my own narrative here soon (which I will also submit to Tara).
If you have found yourself talking to the dead as well, I hope you will consider assisting her.

29 Responses to “When nurses talk to the dead.”

  1. I’m a nurse working in oncology and before that I worked in aged care, so I have to deal with the death of a patient on a regular basis. I agree with everyone else about respecting patients, even after they have passed away and I always talk to my patients after have died. Because my I get know my patients well before they die, I still continue to see them as the same person, even after death.
    But there’s also an awkward factor going on that it just feels completely wrong and uncomfortable to be in a room with a dead person and not talk. I’m not sure what it is and I can’t entirely articulate it into words, but despite me rationally knowing that a patient cannot hear me once they have died, it just feels totally wrong to not talk.

  2. I have been nursing for about 30 years now. In ED death has often been a battle, and usually you havent got to know the patient at all. Taking that time to tidy them up, reasure them that evreything is OK I think is just the human connection. It is a privelage to be able to do this. I dont really beleive that there is anything much after death, certainly not heaven and hell, but it usually feels like they are still there in some way. It is a really interesting topic Tara, I look forward to reading more

  3. Im a mature nursing student who had a ‘calling’ to palliative care. Im in my third year of part time uni, but have been working at a beautiful Hospice for a year or so now.
    I have a very strong spiritual belief in the existence of the soul, and that the soul will move from the body and pass over. I believe it can be quick if their ready to go, it they dont have any loose ends on this plain etc, or the soul can ‘hang around’ for a long time if there are unresolved issues etc. So, with that belief it makes sense to talk to the ‘person’ , be they in their body or not.
    I often talk to my living patients about dying also – under the right circumstances of course. Sometime i mention my beliefs, mostly I dont. Its about their passing, not about my beliefs. And i often tell them its ok to go when there hanging on.
    I also agree with lots of comments about ‘breaking the silence’ and not being uncomfortable. But I feel that with lots of experience – as the seniors I work with do – it comes down to respect regardless of spiritual beliefs.
    Good luck, im looking forward to reading your paper

  4. Hi Tara,
    Ive been nursing for only seven years and have had to perform last offices on a large number of patients and I can recall all of them.
    Nursing is a passion. My passion. Nursing is the care of the individual and their family. I see a person not a disease.
    I respect everyone of my patients regardless of their life choices. Respect does not end when life does. I speak to my deceased patients as a sign of respect for them, their family and for my profession.
    I do not belief in god, heaven or hell. I believe we are born, we live one life and we die. I believe live is precious and should be respected. I believe we are here once, we must then do good for the sake of good not for personal gain in this life or the perceived afterlife. showing respect for the deceased shows respect for life, theirs and yours.
    You can measure a man by the way he treats the living and the dead.

  5. Very interesting topic! I’m a new nurse (license 6 months last week!) in Virginia, USA. I’m working on the GI floor, which one of the nurses this week was complaining that we were becoming the hospice floor because of how many comfort care patients we get lately (generally about 3 to 4 of our 40 bed unit at a time).
    I haven’t had a patient die during my shift yet, but I have come into work and one of the rooms I was assigned the patient had died recently and the family had just finished saying their goodbyes. It was my job to remove her IJ, get her in the body bag, and finish up some paperwork. Two of the CNA’s helped me. I talked to the patient, and apologized to her for pulling on her neck and dropping her hand off the bed. The CNA’s and I also talked about the patient, about how she looked peaceful, but also about how her BM smelled when we rolled her over to put the body bag.
    Before reading this, I didn’t even think about talking to dead patients. I just did it. It is probably more for my comfort, and the comfort of those helping prepare the body than anything else. I always talk to my comfort care patients, even if they are unresponsive. I think that they can hear what is going on around them before they died, so talking to them is comforting to them; but after they die, it seems to become more of a self preservation conversation with the patient.
    I’m excited to see what your research reviles!

  6. Talking is one of many death rituals we unconsciously practice in a hospital setting. In My old ICU, we had a withdrawal room that was lit and decorated with help from the family, all types of worship was encouraged. We then minimised our presence and let them say goodbye. At Ian’s own hospital I had a family member die in ICU,( This family includes an intensivist and 2 ICU nurses!!) they allowed us a Buddist priest, chanting, windows (door!)to be opened, all medical equipment to be cleared, such love and compassion was given, yet confusion from some of the younger staff still makes me smile.
    I have always found it normal to talk to all those in my care, and as said previously , I do not delineate between mind body and spirit.
    Just an after thought something that has plagued me, why is it when someone has died their lollies become deadlollies?????In my 30 odd years I have never had an adequate answer. Thank-you

  7. For me it is not exactly spiritual – more a matter of respect. I also think there are a number of other more ‘mundane’ reasons that can’t be overlooked. First is that is reduces the sense of awkwardness (for lack of better work) that exists in the room during death work. Second is that it’s a learned behaviour. As a new nurse, I remember the senior nurse socialising me to the process and expected behaviour during death work.

  8. At the hospice house it offers an avenue for closure, as the person transitions to the other side.

  9. People and animals are made up of two things ; the physical and the spiritual . When a person ( and animal ) dies , the physical part is left and the spiritual part goes back home . The spirit is still around and you can talk to ‘ it ‘ quite nicely . It will hear you . Regards , JimB , certificated spiritual healer . Member HPAI .

  10. I trained int eh UK in the 1970s and I am fairly sure we were taught to talk to the person as we did the Last Offices…I agree with Deb.. it is respectful.

    • I trained through a hospital in the late 80′s and we were taught that, too. One of the things I’m interested in is how (or if) changes to nursing (and midwifery and medical) culture have influenced practice – nursing when I started was quite different from the way my mother worked in the 60s, and the transition to universitys and TAFE’s has changed things even further. So far my participants range from former nurses in their mid seventies to those 12 months out.

  11. hello Ian and Tara,
    what an interesting research project, so many different answers and explanations out there.
    for me its a sense of wanting to see the “soul” or “spirit” off respectfully.
    although I’m not a very spiritual person myself and belong to no organised religion or theology i still have a belief that all beings are more than the sum of their body parts.
    with this in mind i care for the dead as though their sentience is still present.
    it helps to keep me focused on the body as belonging to a life story and not just being a collection of parts and tasks
    it also helps me feel less overwhelmed or awkward as it gives a gentle focus to what i do
    if family are present it shows them that their loved one was respected throughout their whole journey.

    as sure as we’re born, we die
    death is as much a part of life as birth
    being a part of the dying process, being with the dying and their family and easing their journey is as much a privilege and an honour as being with a family for a birth.

    • Hi Angie,
      one of the aspects I’m exploring is how the religious, spiritual and theological beliefs and experiences of participants influences their behaviour – so far I’ve had a spectrum from a second generation atheist to a Buddhist who has a special obligation to the dead.
      I really like the way you write, and would be delighted if you wanted to participate.

      • hi Tara, i would love to be involved,
        have been crazy busy over the christmas / new year period and one of the the things that got pushed off my ‘have-time-for’ list has been social media :-(
        i should be ‘back’ properly early Feb.
        will check out your letter / pdf invite and have more of a think
        angie :-)

  12. Many nurses cared for the deceased whilst they were alive and may have some knowledge about the living personality. It seems natural to talk to a warm body, even though life is extinguished. However, I doubt I would talk to a cold body unless it were that of a friend or family member. Maybe familiarity has something to do with it?

    Good luck with your research.

    • Hi Rebecca,

      familiarity certainly plays a part for a lot of us – some of my colleagues will go to see a well-known patient and say goodbye, even if they weren’t looking after them that shift (or even admission).

      Thanks for the support :)

  13. Hi Tara,
    As a student I have found myself doing this (and honestly thought I was crazy because I have never seen any of the experienced staff doing this). I don’t believe there is one straight answer. I talk to them out of respect for them and their family and as others have suggested I feel that they’re ‘still there’. I suspect I also do it for myself (As a newbie) so I’m not in the room just going about my job silently like I’m an office clerk sending an email. I still call the deceased by whatever name I was using before their passing (Mr Parkinson’s, Bob ect) and still chat to them about what I’ll be doing next. It’s great to know that I’m not crackers. :)

    • Hi Chantalle,
      I’ve had a couple of doctors tell me that they thought they were the only ones, though (so far) most nurses have seen it from early on. Either way, definitely not crackers ;)

  14. Hi Tara, I initially think that it is about having a sense of the person’s soul/energy still present. I always feel particularly connected/spiritual during those times. It feels like a privilege.
    Hope to think about it further and get back to you. Best wishes for your research, M.

    • I agree that end-of-life and post-mortem care is one of the prvileges of our roles, and one shared by few outside our professions. I look forward to anything you have to add, and thank you :)

  15. Looking forward to it. Even ambos a good dead whisperers. My nursing whispering has filtered to the road.

  16. For me talking to dead people is just a sign of respect for the life that has so recently passed- also I sometimes feel that the soul ( if it exists) may still be in the room,

    • Both aspects you mention are interesting – and I love when the project I’ve spent so much time on that it starts to feel a little mundane, is so eagerly responded to. Thank you :)

  17. Thank you, Ian, for both your reflections and spreading the word. I’ll post my findings when I’m done, and hope this opens the door to further exploration of health care culture :)

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