Understanding grief in terminal patients

Working with palliative care patients has always been very rewarding for Randip Dhaliwal. Having worked most of her career in the Cardiac Unit at Rockyview General Hospital, she worked with many congestive heart failure patients. She experienced palliative care involvement in this role and found it would often occur very late in the process for her patients. It was this experience that led her to want to pursue doctoral work that focused on understanding anticipatory grief among terminally ill, palliative care patients using legacy work.

“The reason I pursued doctoral work is I started practicing as a registered nurse and noticed a lot of gaps in the care that we were providing patients, so eventually I got to the point where I felt really frustrated and wanted to be able to do something about it.  I think graduate education is a great outlet for that and for having the opportunity to be able to contribute to making changes in clinical practice,” Randip says.

Her research focuses on legacy work, which is any type of creative or artistic output a patient creates. She noticed it was often encouraged to use creativity and art in pediatric palliative care settings, but in adult settings, it wasn’t as common.

“The purpose of implementing legacy work in palliative care patients is to help the patient make sense of how they grieve their own death.”

The focus of palliative care was often on grief and bereavement care for the patient’s family members and loved ones after a death occurred, but conversations didn’t happen prior to the patient’s death. What she realized in her research was that patients want to have these conversations, as difficult as they are, so they can grieve the fact that they’re dying and grieve the losses of their relationships.

Anticipatory grief is grieving that occurs before a loss, and in the case of terminally ill patients, it’s the loss of life that they’re grappling with. Randip hopes to help those patients feel like their voices are heard.

Randip was awarded the Florence and Lloyd Cooper Alberta Registered Nurses Educational Trust (ARNET) Scholarship for the excellence she’s demonstrated in pursuing her doctoral studies. Education advancement and research is one of Calgary Health Foundation’s priority areas in enhancing health care in our community.

“I can’t imagine anyone saying anything other than feeling amazing and wonderful after being awarded this scholarship. The other part is it’s nice to feel like your research is valuable and you’re doing something meaningful.”

Randip has put the funds towards her research, allowing her to buy supplies for patients if they don’t have access to them. In addition, the funds have allowed her to focus on attending all of her classes while still balancing work.

Her nursing career began in 2018 after graduating from the University of Calgary. She has worked in acute care, public health care and community health. Through the different settings she’s worked in, her work with palliative care patients is what has always felt most intuitive.

“I think it has a lot to do with the vulnerability they show when you’re interacting with them. I chose to focus on working with that population so I can find the best ways to help support them.”

Randip has found nursing to be an incredibly rewarding career where she’s consistently learning, leaving every shift having learned something she didn’t know before. Pursuing doctoral studies has allowed her to understand much more about death and dying.

Randip hopes to complete her doctoral studies in 2025, where she’d like to be able to teach and still be a bedside nurse. For her, it’s important to continue being a nurse to stay grounded while she’s pursuing her academic work as well. 

“There’s a lot of stigma surrounding death and dying. I want to help create opportunities to have those conversations as I’ve come to realize that patients are thinking about them anyway, and they’re just scared to have the conversation, but the conversations are really important to have.”

The most challenging part of her career has been the grief she feels when losing patients.

“Working with patients that are at end of life is not an easy task or endeavor. There are moments that feel heavy and it’s really important to have an outlet.”

What’s most rewarding about her career is being allowed in the room, interacting with patients and learning from them.

“I think a lot of the time people are able to separate their careers and personal lives but one of the most beautiful things about nursing is what I learn from patients and what I learn at work I can bring home with me. I’m really lucky to get all this advice from incredible patients at the end of their lives.”

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