Most family members of potential organ donors experience the death of their relative in an intensive care unit. While under an emotional burden, bereaved relatives must make a decision that will affect the life of other patients. A better understanding of grief within the context of organ donation will help intensive care unit staff better support families during this process.


To empirically describe the emotional reactions of potential organ donors’ family members facing a loved one’s death and analyze the relationship of these reactions to factors that occur in the process of illness and death.


A prospective observational study was conducted in 16 Spanish hospitals for 36 months. Data of 421 relatives of potential organ donors, collected through a previously validated instrument, included relatives’ emotional responses, deceased’s and relatives’ characteristics, circumstances of death, and behavior of health care staff.


Unexpected deaths were linked to more intense emotional reactions and less acceptance of death than were anticipated deaths. Additional stressors, such as perception of poor treatment by hospital staff, perception of deficient medical care, and poor relationships among family members, were associated with stronger reactions.


Observation and analysis of the factors studied may help hospital staff members anticipate bereaved relatives’ emotional reactions and provide better support during the grieving process, increasing family members’ well-being and facilitating a better-informed organ donation decision.

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