Care centred on the patient and family as a unit is core to the philosophy of palliative care. The goals of supporting family have been described as: meeting their needs; minimising their distress; improving their well-being and ultimate outcomes; and empowering them to provide care.
Nurses working with patients with palliative care needs can spend much of their time not only on patient care but in also getting to know and be known by family members. The role of the nurse can include provision of emotional and spiritual support, ongoing education about care and management, support during decision making on end-of-life issues, as well as support after death.
It is important that nurses are prepared for and supported in what for some is a substantive part of their work. For example some family members do not work together well. They have difficulty in communicating effectively or contributing to decision making which can lead to difficult situations. Not all nurses are able to manage this situation alone. Recognising that support and advice may be needed from colleagues, managers or the wider interdisciplinary team is important. Family meetings are one way of providing a formalised structure by which to facilitate communication and decision making.
It is also not always well recognised or acknowledged within management structures, that supporting families can often be complex and time consuming. Equally important, and also not well acknowledged, is that nurses also often have to deal, not only with the sometimes complex emotions of patients and their families, but also with their own emotions.