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How Understanding The Grief Process Improves Dental Patient Care

Feb 16, 2018

Author: Amber Metro-Sanchez

Imagine that your next patient for the day has unexpectedly lost their spouse the month before to a heart attack. You are understandably concerned about your patient, but not sure how to tactfully proceed with the dental appointment. How do you properly reach out to your patient to express sympathy but not feel like you are intruding on a tough part of his or her personal life? Navigating and understanding the grief process with your patients is a delicate process, but with careful consideration, you can help provide them with emotional support during an extremely stressful time.

Develop Your Understanding of the Grief Process

Understanding the grief process can be difficult, especially if you haven't experienced a similar loss yourself. In addition, everyone experiences grief differently. The five stages of grief were first defined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969 as a tool to understand this difficult process, explains Keep in mind that these stages are not a rigid framework, and people can go back and forth between the different stages at any given time.

Here is a summary of the five stages of grief:

  1. Denial. The person is shocked and overwhelmed, often feeling it's not possible to go on.
  2. Anger. The person becomes angry about the loss and questions why it had to happen.
  3. Bargaining. The person is stuck in the past, wonders what he or she could have done differently to change this loss, and is constantly thinking "what if?"
  4. Depression. The person experiences prolonged sadness as he or she realizes that a loved one is never coming back.
  5. Acceptance. The person finally learns to live with the reality of being without a loved one. It doesn't mean he or she likes it, but means its accepted as the new norm.

How To Be There for Your Grieving Patient

Knowing how to support your patient during this challenging time can make a world of a difference to your patient emotionally. According to Dentistry IQ, you should be ready to listen if the patient wants to talk. Be prepared to spend extra time with your patient, and have the tissues ready. You can tell patients that you are sorry for their loss. Be prepared to direct your patient to a local grief support group as well if needed.

Sometimes an office learns about the death of a patient through an obituary or a story in the news. If this is the case, do not hesitate to send a sympathy card signed by all of the staff members. Your patient's next-of-kin will appreciate your staff going the extra mile during their time of mourning.

Mistakes to Avoid with Your Grieving Patient

Don't be too critical of oral hygiene with patients who have experienced a loss; just let them know what you are seeing. For example, if a patient is busy taking care of his or her terminally ill mother, you can tell your patient that you are noticing more bleeding in the gum tissue. You could go on to say to patients that you know it must be difficult for them to find time to take care of themselves. Your understanding will let them know you care about their situation.

You may be tempted to share your experience with a loss or tell the patient that you know how they feel. But according to, this may be counterproductive and inadvertently take attention away from your patient's loss. It may be better just to tell your patient that he or she is in your thoughts and that you care.


  • Learn the stages of grief and understand that everyone experiences grief in different ways and at their own pace.
  • Be ready to listen, but only if your patient wants to talk.
  • Do not focus too much on any dental issues unless it is an emergency.

Why It's Important

The loss of a loved one and the grief that follows is something that you are bound to experience at some point in your life. As your patients experience this trying time themselves, you can make a lasting difference by showing them how much you care. You can show them that dentistry is about more than just teeth. Your profession is truly about caring for the whole person.

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