This year has been among the most challenging in recent memory, especially from the perspective of a healthcare worker. As a chaplain at Orlando Health, I have personally witnessed the societal impact of widespread grief.
Amid the holiday season, nobody needs to remind us that we are living in unprecedented times and facing unprecedented challenges. We’ll only overcome our collective grief through support and understanding.
In a year with more loss and turmoil than most, the grieving process has been interrupted for many. Changes to hospitals’ visitation policies mean some families have not been able to visit ailing loved ones, whether their diagnosis is related to COVID-19 or not.
Even when families can visit a patient critically ill from COVID, contact is through a barrier. There is no hand-holding, no kissing, no whispered prayers or “I love you.” Some families have watched loved ones die through a pane of glass.
We’ve watched the scene too many times in 2020, and it’s one of the most emotionally exhausting experiences imaginable. The weight of these moments is heavy on everyone.
It is a grim reality when you become aware of the trajectory and likely outcome for a patient because you’ve been down this road before. You anticipate that death is coming, which triggers anticipatory grief. Often, we are in the position of serving as substitutes for family members who cannot be with a dying patient. We are often the last human contact they have.
The constant and chaotic disruption of our typical processes leads to delayed grief for everyone involved, especially for healthcare workers. We’re not able to express our grief because we must soldier on. People need us.
We don’t have the luxury to find a corner and have a good cry—that simply does not happen.
We also have a country dealing with disenfranchised grief, which is unacknowledged or unvalidated by societal norms. Many of us are not just dealing with the loss of loved ones, but with the loss of a way of life and the normalcy we took for granted as businesses fold or announce layoffs.
This overwhelming grief manifests itself in different ways. Many healthcare workers experience absent grief, which often just looks like a blank stare. It’s a response that allows us to avoid emotional realities, convincing ourselves that we do not have feelings about what is happening.
That is why, in addition to the overwhelming number of grieving family members I’ve ministered to this year, I’ve also found myself prioritizing time to care for my colleagues. We’ve had nurses broken by this pandemic and physicians pushed to their limits. We’ve lost team members and stood by helplessly as loved ones die.
Witnessing these losses has led to battle fatigue, compassion fatigue, mental exhaustion and acute soul injury.
It is important to acknowledge the difficulty our whole country is facing as we head into the holidays. This season is always challenging—mental health crises typically increase during the holidays. Unfortunately, this year we are likely to experience a worsening of the grief process over the next few weeks and months as the holidays look different for everyone.
As the holidays near and 2020 comes to a close, remember to reach out to loved ones, especially those who have experienced loss and anyone in the healthcare industry.
Be conscious of allowing others to grieve in their own way, whether that’s quiet reflection or overt sobbing.
Everyone is experiencing grief differently; no one is doing it wrong or needs to “get over it.” Grief doesn’t come with an expiration date and we all need to learn how to sit with others in their pain.
We are in a global pandemic that will not disappear overnight. As we await the healing of our world through commonsense measures and vaccines, I encourage everyone to be patient with ourselves, others and our new way of life.