Grief Topic

Grief Reactions Associated with Organ Donation

Organ transplantation saves lives and improves the quality of life for many people.

A transplant involves taking organs from a person who is dead and putting those organs in a person to help them live.

The sudden death of a previously healthy family member is a traumatic experience that will affect people in many different ways. It may be the first time a person has heard about brain death, an injury to the brain that causes the brain to swell and stops blood (and vital oxygen) flowing to the brain. The swelling also causes the brain to push on the brain stem. The brain stem controls our breathing, blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature. All of these are vital to maintain life.

When a dead relative is on a ventilator (a machine that pumps air into the lungs) in a hospital Intensive Care Unit, it is difficult to understand that a person can be dead when they have a beating heart, are warm to touch, and their chest is moving up and down. However a person who is brain dead looks just like this, so even though you are told your relative is dead, it may take some time for you to fully understand. Diagrams, looking at x rays (if they were taken) and asking questions will help you to understand that brain death is death.

The request for organ donation may come as a shock for many relatives. It is important to realise that most organs can only be donated from people who are brain dead. The request for organ donation needs to occur after your relative is certified dead, the time of the last brain death test.

It is unfortunate that many families have never discussed or even thought about organ donation until a tragedy happens. Families will be asked about the wishes of their dead relative. If these wishes are not known, the family will need to make the decision.

When surveyed, donor families gave the following reasons for consenting to organ donation:

  • it was an opportunity for something positive to come out of tragedy
  • to enable someone else to live a better life
  • she or he would have wanted to help others

Support for donor families will help in their grief recovery. This support starts at their arrival at the hospital and includes:

  • accurate information regarding the patient’s treatment and likely outcome
  • empathy and understanding from all staff
  • information about organ donation
  • the chance to ask questions
  • private times with their relative and a time to say “goodbye”
  • consideration of spiritual needs

It is policy for families to receive information regarding who has been helped by this generous gift.

There are situations that may complicate the grieving of family members.

These include:

  • sudden death
  • the death of a child
  • perception that death may have been prevented
  • lack of support
  • lack of opportunity to spend time with their relative

Sadly many donor families have such experiences and these families may need special attention and support.

Organ donation agencies are able to offer support after an organ donation. Talking to other donor families can be helpful. Families are urged to contact their Organ Donation Agency for assistance in finding answers to questions. Most agencies can make referrals to suitable bereavement counsellors if required.

Organ donation does not take away the pain of death. However, many donor families have said that the transplant was the only positive thing to come from the death of their relative.