Dealing with More Death Than Usual
Working in the health care field is emotionally taxing, but the COVID-19 pandemic adds an extra layer to the burden that frontline workers experience. In addition to increased workloads and their own risk of infection, as well as difficult decisions about patient care, health care workers are facing the trauma of witnessing a high number of deaths.
If you are working in the medical field during a time of crisis, there are two types of trauma you are likely experiencing:
Shared trauma refers to a helping professional experiencing a trauma twofold. Right now, you are experiencing COVID-19 just like the rest of society - dealing with worries about the economy, you and your loved ones getting sick, and the uncertainty of it all. But at work, you’re expected to push your own fears and losses down to help your patients, which adds to the trauma of the situation for you.
Vicarious trauma occurs from witnessing the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have faced. You may experience this from seeing patients in pain as they fight off their sickness or watching people die without their loved ones present.
If you have personally lost loved ones over the last few months, that adds another layer of complexity and pain to the situation. It is especially difficult to move forward when you’re unable to physically gather and mourn your loss with others affected, but there are still ways to honor the person you lost. Attend or host a virtual memorial service or celebration of life – this can be open to all, or you can plan a smaller event with just your family or friends who also knew the person. Take some time to go through old photos if you have them or write a letter to the person who passed away. This can be especially healing if you didn’t get to say goodbye in the way you would have liked. You may also want to consider joining an online support group. There is power in shared experiences, and others who have lost loved ones during this pandemic can relate to you in a way others cannot.
If you haven’t lost anyone personally close to you, dealing with more death than you’re used to can still bring up a lot of intense emotions. A big part of this grief is guilt. You may feel like you didn’t do enough to save someone, or in cases where there is a shortage of equipment that you “allowed” a death in exchange to save another life. Or you could be experiencing survivor’s guilt - feeling guilty because you survived a life-threatening situation that others didn’t. This is especially likely if a colleague or someone you’ve interacted with has died from COVID-19. Even just hearing about death frequently can trigger a grief response – things like statistics on the news, friends posting on social media about loved ones who have passed away, or codes over the PA system at work. Everyone handles severe distress and grief differently - you might feel numb, irritable, or sad. You may even feel all of those throughout the same day. There’s no “right way” to respond to the events we’re currently facing. And while the stages of grief do apply to COVID-19, it’s hard to move through the grieving process when the losses aren’t over yet.
So how can you handle this? If you’ve been working in the health care field for a while, it’s likely you’ve experienced patient deaths before. Think about what has worked for you in the past after losing a patient. Remember to give yourself grace - it’s okay to feel your emotions. Empathy is a powerful trait that often makes for a great health care worker, but it also makes loss harder. It is your career to care for people, and the grief you feel means you did your job. Consider taking a day off or trading shifts with a coworker, especially if the mental load is at a point where you don’t feel as helpful as you need to be. There’s no shame in needing to take a day to rebalance your mind. If you lost a patient you were particularly close with, find some way to memorialize them – consider attending a virtual service if there is one, or ask a friend if you can share some of your favorite stories about the person. Don’t hesitate to rely on your support system, including your coworkers. Talking helps, especially when the person you are sharing your feelings with has been through the same challenges. It may feel easier to bury your emotions, but the sooner you start processing, the better off you will be in the long run.
Everyone will benefit from different coping skills, but the foundation of moving through this time is accepting the realities of your profession: you can’t save everyone, you have to work with the limited resources you have available, and your efforts will be impacted by situations beyond your control. Accepting these hard truths won’t make your work easier but may make the emotional burden a bit more bearable. If you’re finding it hard to stay afloat, take a mental health screen – you might be facing the initial stages of depression or PTSD. You can take a free, anonymous, confidential screen at mhascreening.org.
Symptoms of Depression
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
- Reduced appetite and weight loss, or increased appetite and weight gain
- Loss of pleasure and interest in activities once enjoyed, including sex
- Restlessness, irritability
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
- Feeling guilty, hopeless, or worthless
- Thoughts of suicide or death
Symptoms of PTSD
- Repeatedly thinking about the trauma, nightmares, flashbacks
- Avoiding reminders of the trauma – not wanting to talk about it or be around people/places that remind you of it
- Feeling blame about the trauma
- Isolating yourself or having difficulty interacting with others
- Irritability and/or anger
- Increased substance use - using drugs or alcohol to cope with the emotional pain