by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
For many caregivers, COVID-19 has been a nonstop wrecking ball. It has swung back and forth across the globe, decimating families and communities. And who’s there in the midst of the ongoing crisis, providing care to the hundreds of thousands of sick, dying, dead, and grieving people? The professional caregivers. The nurses, long-term care workers, doctors, funeral directors, hospice staff, social workers, EMTs, and other critical frontline workers whose vocations place them squarely in the wrecking ball’s path.
If you’re one of these caregivers, you don’t need me to tell you how extraordinarily difficult your work has been. You’ve been challenged with fatiguing physical labor and PPE protocols as well as work conditions that have placed your own health, and possibly your family’s health, in jeopardy. And some of you have borne witness to a staggering amount of loss—perhaps more loss in a few months that you might have otherwise experienced in an entire career.
If you feel you’ve been exposed to too much loss during the pandemic and find yourself struggling with your thoughts, feelings, ability to function day-to-day, and possibly the prospect of ongoing exposure to even more loss, this article is for you.
What is grief overload?
Grief overload is what you feel when you experience too much loss all at once or in a relatively short period of time.
As a caregiver, you probably understand and accept that death is a natural part of life. You are probably well-equipped and trained to handle everyday loss situations. But when you are forced to care for an unusually high number of patients and families, some in desperate circumstances, you will naturally feel heightened stress, anxiety, fear, depression, hopelessness, physical unwellness, and other symptoms.
Grief overload simply means you have been exposed to more loss than anyone could reasonably take in stride. Even if you have coped well with death and loss in the past, you may be finding that the COVID-19 losses happening around you are different. This time you may feel helpless and hopeless. This time you may feel like you’re struggling to survive.
What is secondary trauma?
Secondary trauma happens when you are exposed to the traumatic loss situations of others. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many caregivers have suffered not only grief overload but also secondary trauma.
Long-term care facility workers have been placed in the difficult position of caring for multiple dying patients at one time. Nurses and doctors have had to triage patients and, lacking adequate PPE and lifesaving equipment, have sometimes been forced to choose who will receive full care and who will not. Hospital and morgue workers have had to stack overflow bodies in refrigerated trucks. Funeral home staff have cared for more bodies and bewildered families in a month than they normally do in a year.
Secondary trauma symptoms often overlap with post-traumatic stress symptoms, including intrusive thoughts about what happened, avoidance of triggers and feelings related to the place or event, pervasive negative feelings, and pronounced anxiety.
What to do about grief overload and secondary trauma
The COVID-19 wrecking ball is leaving many grief-overloaded and traumatized caregivers behind in its wake. If you’re one of them, or know someone who may be, here are some guidelines for taking care of your own mental health in the weeks and months to come:
• Prioritize your own care.
You can’t be of much help to others if you’re not first taking care of yourself. If you’re struggling, it’s time to make yourself the top priority. Take a day or two or three off work to recuperate and get an assessment.
• Get an assessment.
See your primary care provider as well as a professional counselor. The goal is to create a plan to shore up your mental health and get you the intensive help you may need for a period of weeks or months to restore and rebalance.
• Look into company resources.
Many healthcare organizations and workplaces with frontline caregivers have protocols and mental-health resources for trauma training, debriefing, reflective supervision, therapy, and more. Contact your HR department or benefits coordinator. Be sure you know what resources are available to you and how to access them.
• Take sick leave or FMLA to buy yourself downtime.
If you are emotionally unwell, both sick leave and FMLA time can be used to give yourself an essential respite. What you may need most of all is some time away from COVID-19 losses and trauma. Again, talk to your supervisor or HR department to activate the benefits you have earned.
• Focus on good basic self-care.
If you’ve been too busy or distracted to take good care of yourself, it’s time to make time. Now more than ever you need adequate high-quality sleep, regular exercise, a healthy diet, and good hydration. Mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga can also be transformative. Use your time away from work to embark on a self-care makeover. Ask for friends and family to help you with this new lifesaving focus.
Throughout the COVID crisis, we’ve been applauding caregivers like you. We’ve been calling you heroes, putting up banners to thank you, and dropping off food to keep you sustained. Yet you and I know that claps and cookies are not enough. You deserve to be well cared for, including comprehensive mental-health benefits and adequate time away from work, to renew yourself and to be able to return to work whole and healthy.
If you think you may be suffering from grief overload and/or secondary trauma, I urge you to reach out for support today.
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