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Dying well: nurses’ experiences of ‘good and bad’ deaths in hospital


John Costello,
School of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work,
The University of Manchester,
Gateway House,
Piccadilly South,
Manchester M60 7LP,


Aim.  This paper reports a study investigating hospital nurses’ experiences of death and dying.

Background.  Despite advances in medical science and health care, together with the push towards individualizing approaches to patient care in the developed world, significant variation in the care of dying patients still exists. The international issues relating to differing types of death reveal both its complexity and diversity, with evidence of ‘good death’ experiences largely focused on hospice experiences, and a lack of research on death in general hospitals.

Method.  In-depth interviews were conducted in 1999 with a convenience sample of 29 Registered Nurses in the United Kingdom based on their hospital death experiences. Semiotic analysis was used to identify the ‘deep structures’ that underlie and form part of cultural communication as a way of understanding how nurses made sense of death. Data interpretation was enhanced through the use of a typology of ‘good and bad deaths’.

Findings.  The findings suggest that different experiences of death are based on the extent to which nurses were able to exert control over the dying process. The management of death in hospital is a major source of conflict for nurses. Good and bad death experiences were constructed according to their impact on the sentimental order of the ward, the intangible, but real patterns of mood that influenced nurses’ feelings. Moreover, good and bad deaths focused less on patients’ needs and the dying process and more on the death event and nurses’ abilities to manage organizational demands.

Conclusion.  There is a need to improve communication with patients and families about diagnosis and prognosis to ensure that effective communication takes place and ‘blocking behaviour’ is avoided. The findings also challenge practitioners to focus attention on death as a process, and to prioritize patients’ needs above those of the organization. Moreover, there is the need for guidelines to be developed enabling patients to have a role in shaping events at the end of their lives.