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How does your practice approach death in the workplace?

Aug. 30, 2022
Laura Bettencourt learned a valuable lesson when her father passed away: how your practice approaches death can help someone with their grieving process.

No one likes to talk about death. I never did. It wasn’t until this past year that I was able to see the importance of talking about death, and about the process and grief. It’s inevitable for all of us, and it’s something we cannot avoid.

In December 2020, my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. My dad was an incredible man. His energy was infectious, he had a heart of gold, and he’d give the shirt off his back to anyone. I consider myself lucky for everything he taught me.

When we heard the news, of course we wanted to know how he could beat it. His team of doctors had a plan that included months of radiation, a new experimental drug, tests, and more. It was a lot, mentally and emotionally. Unfortunately, the doctors said his treatment would not cure his cancer; all we could do now was make sure he was comfortable. My dad decided to come home and go into hospice care.

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Then came the day I received the phone call from my mom. “The nurse just told me your dad only has 24 hours or so to live. Please come as soon as you can.” I was at work, in a meeting with the director, and in between patients. My world stopped.

The workplace and death

Once the dust settled from my experience, it made me evaluate death in the workplace. I’m so thankful I was in an office where the team was understanding and supportive. The moment I received that dreaded phone call, the director looked at me, hugged me, and told me not to worry about the rest of my day at work. “We got this,” she said. “Please go be with your family.”

 My coworkers helped me gather my things, made sure I was OK to drive, and gave me the support I needed. Along with my family and friends, they held me up on my darkest days. These are intangible advantages that aren’t listed as part of your benefits package, but they are qualities that should be encouraged in every workplace. We may not be family, but coworkers are a team that should support each other in the highs and lows of life.

In “This is not a family. This is a team," Josey Sewell said, “Don’t leave your crap at the door.” She discusses that no matter how hard you try, you cannot separate your personal life from your professional life. My dad’s death is a perfect example of this. Professionally, my team supported me and helped me through the grieving process.

Patients and death

When I came back to work, I realized how many patients have experienced the same thing. I wonder why we don’t talk about death more. As health-care providers, we’re taught the science of how to diagnose, treat, and perform oral health care. But what about the empathy and compassion that comes with treating humans as individuals?

I understand everyone handles situations differently. There is no right or wrong way to grieve or discuss loss. I encourage everyone to do it with kindness, patience, and compassion. Let them talk and ask them if there’s anything you can do to support them in their moment of difficulty. Do not pry or offer unwarranted advice. In these difficult moments, most people just want to be heard and comforted. I know we’re not trained therapists, however, our patients put a lot of trust in us. Let’s give them the understanding and compassionate support they need.

In the future, let us talk about death and grief in the workplace in all forms, and how we can support our teammates and support our patients. Let’s lead with compassion and understanding.

About the Author

Laura Bettencourt, BSDH, RDH

Laura Bettencourt, BSDH, RDH, has more than 15 years of clinical experience. A mother, wife, writer, speaker, RDH, and cofounder of L’Diamante Dental Coaching, she excels in leadership, compliance, hygiene excellence, and periodontal protocols. Laura is dedicated to inspiring growth, empowering clients with confidence and clarity. Committed to education and mentorship, she instills a positive attitude in all aspects of life. Contact her at [email protected].