“What happens behind the curtains?”: ICU nurses’ experiences of post mortem care

The aim of this study was to explore the experiences of intensive care nurses performing post mortem care on patients who had died in an intensive care unit at a private hospital in Cape Town. The study further sets out to identify educational needs and to offer recommendations that may address these needs for this sample of nurses | Intensive and Critical Care Nursing


Findings: Safeguarding the integrity and physical appearance of the dead body was the major finding and of the utmost priority for the participants in this study. Regardless of how the nurses felt about death, providing professional and quality care to the dead body and the family was seen as significantly important.

The nurses, whilst performing post mortem care, experienced detachment from various relationships. This comprised of the nurse detaching him/herself professionally and emotionally from the dead patient, the family and him/herself from the death experience.

This ‘unspoken’ experience of thanatophobia became apparent when the nurses were confronted by the reality of their own deaths.

Conclusion and recommendations: In a technological society, where answers to many questions can be pursued through science, understanding the experience of death, as opposed to dying, may be logically incomprehensible. Death remains one of the most traumatic events experienced by the patient and their family, and in some instances nurses themselves.

The study has drawn attention to the nurses’ experiences and in doing so; the emotional and educational needs have been identified, and in part, pedagogical offerings are recommended.

Full reference: de Swardt, C. & Fouché, N. (2017) “What happens behind the curtains?” An exploration of ICU nurses’ experiences of post mortem care on patients who have died in intensive care. Intensive and Critical Care Nursing. Published online: June 05, 2017