How Death Anxiety Impacts Nurses’ Caring for Patients at the End of Life: A Review of Literature

L. Peters1, R. Cant*, 1, S. Payne2, M. O’Connor1, F. McDermott1, K. Hood1, J. Morphet1, K. Shimoinaba1
1 Monash University, Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, Melbourne, VIC 3168, Australia
2 Lancaster University, Faculty of Health & Medicine, Lancaster, UK

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© Peters et al.; Licensee Bentham Open.

open-access license: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestrictive use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

* Address correspondence to this author at the Monash University 100 Clyde Rd Berwick, VIC Aust 3806, Australia; Tel: +61 3 99047159;


Nurses are frequently exposed to dying patients and death in the course of their work. This experience makes individuals conscious of their own mortality, often giving rise to anxiety and unease. Nurses who have a strong anxiety about death may be less comfortable providing nursing care for patients at the end of their life. This paper explores the literature on death anxiety and nurses’ attitudes to determine whether fear of death impacts on nurses’ caring for dying patients. Fifteen quantitative studies published between 1990 and 2012 exploring nurses’ own attitudes towards death were critically reviewed. Three key themes identified were: i). nurses’ level of death anxiety; ii). death anxiety and attitudes towards caring for the dying, and iii). death education was necessary for such emotional work. Based on quantitative surveys using valid instruments, results suggested that the level of death anxiety of nurses working in hospitals in general, oncology, renal, hospice care or in community services was not high. Some studies showed an inverse association between nurses’ attitude towards death and their attitude towards caring for dying patients. Younger nurses consistently reported stronger fear of death and more negative attitudes towards end-of-life patient care. Nurses need to be aware of their own beliefs. Studies from several countries showed that a worksite death education program could reduce death anxiety. This offers potential for improving nurses’ caring for patients at the end of their life.

Keywords: Attitudes, death anxiety, end of life care, spirituality, thanatophobia.