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Visiting/viewing the body of a deceased patient
  1. Anne Nash,
  2. Frances Kraus and
  3. Linda McEnhill
  1. St Christopher’s Hospice, London

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Introduction

Nurses have a vital role in enabling relatives and carers to visit the body of a deceased patient. Haas (2003) describes how nurses are the healthcare professionals most likely to be present at the time of death. They are in an influential position and are able to guide relatives through this unfamiliar and disturbing experience. She highlights that, instinctively, nurses may advise and support relatives to spend time with the deceased person. However, these instincts need to be supported by research-based evidence.

The associated literature highlights the long-term importance that seeing a body has on the bereaved (Kübler-Ross, 1983; Raphael, 1984; Hodgkinson and Stewart, 1991; Berry and Coyle, 2006). Many writers agree that the grieving process is complicated. Worden (2003) describes how the bereaved person’s acceptance of the reality of loss is the first ‘task’ in the mourning process. This stage is necessary if bereaved people are to work through their grief. Seeing the body can help the bereaved encounter the reality of death and is perhaps the last chance to say ‘goodbye’ and hold a loved one (Raphael, 1984; Pessagno, 1997; O’Gorman, 1998; Berry and Coyle, 2006).

Jones and Buttery (1981) and Davies (1997) highlight the importance of nurses explaining to friends and relatives what the deceased person will look and feel like, especially if the person has undergone physical change as a result of injury. Bereaved people’s imagination may, in many cases, be worse than the reality (Wright, 1991).

In this context the needs of children can often be overlooked. Parents or guardians may aim to protect children by distancing them from the scene of death and having to witness upset adults. The British Association for Emergency Medicine and the Royal College of Nursing (1995) advise that children need special …

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