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Managing Grief and Loss as a Treating Practitioner and Compassionate Human

Jaclyn Lopez Witmer, Psy.D.

Healthcare providers have always played a vital role in society, and they continue to play a crucial part in combating the coronavirus (COVID-19). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) estimates that the United States is approaching 100,000 deaths due to COVID-19, and nearly two million people have fallen sick so far. 

While most people are experiencing stress, uncertainty, grief, and potential loss—healthcare practitioners are facing an even stronger burden. Because of their proximity to the sick as well as the rate they are learning dire pieces of information, many healthcare workers are developing compassion fatigue

managing grief loss and compassion fatigue

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Psychology Today defines compassion fatigue as “the emotional exhaustion from knowing about the suffering from others.” At its base, compassion fatigue can lead to feelings of hopelessness and depression. Without proper management or treatment, it can lead to larger consequences including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorder, and major depression. 

The uncertainty of the novel coronavirus and how long it will last, the fear of oneself or a family member contracting it, and the potential loneliness caused by social distancing and avoiding close contact, can impact one’s mental health and emotional health. 

Adjusting to working or going to school from home, refraining from close contact with others, and frequently watching the news and reading about COVID-19 may cause additional anxiety and fear. Taking care of oneself during this unpredictable time is just as crucial as staying updated about the virus through information from trusted sources such as the CDC, the World Health Organization, and the Mayo Clinic.

Healthcare workers are at a higher risk for these types of stress, especially as they continue to go to work on the frontlines while many of their loved ones are distancing and cooperating with stay-at-home orders. It can create a tumultuous psychological situation.

Managing Grief and Loss as a Health Practitioner

Treating practitioners are experts at telling patients how to care for themselves during times of stress, sickness, and uncertainty. That said, it can be tricky to follow one’s own advice. Just like in any other field, treating practitioners may benefit from implementing a strong work-life balance into their daily routines to keep the stress as far away from their personal situations as possible. 

That said, treating practitioners would benefit as well as the rest of us from solid self-care routines. If constant COVID-19 coverage is overwhelming, they may benefit from resting their minds by doing yoga, reading novels or comic strips, playing video games, or participating in other recreational activities such as safely-distanced sports or exercise.

This is all easier said than done. Of course, reading, playing video games, and practicing mindfulness can help some people cope with the current situation. However, a person that’s grieving the loss of a parent, family member, friend, or another loved one may need additional support. 

People everywhere could use the compassion and support of a mental health professional. But for treating practitioners especially, seeing another expert to manage symptoms of compassion fatigue, PTSD, depression, or anxiety, could be hugely beneficial. 

A critical part of being a health care provider is being a compassionate human and knowing how to manage emotional pain, loss, and grief. That said, these individuals should not be afraid to reach out for support when they need it. 

Helping Others Amidst Personal Stress and Grief

Knowing what to say to people when they’re experiencing loss and grief can be difficult. Many medical professionals know how to comfort someone without forcing them to speak about their emotional pain. An essential part of comforting others and helping them manage grief is to make oneself accessible. Offering people the space to grieve while showing them they’re not alone can be beneficial to how they cope.

Treating practitioners and other medical workers understand that everyone copes with loss differently. It’s also vital that medical professionals know how they go through the grieving process.

Sadly, many medical professionals witness losses in their field. Having effective ways to manage grief is a crucial part of doing the job as well as protecting one’s emotional and mental health.

Grief and emotional suffering that occurs after a loss may cause people to experience overwhelming emotions, including sadness, disbelief, anger, and guilt. It may manifest itself in physical pain, disturbing sleep, difficulty eating, and impaired thinking. Australian researchers investigated the physiologic changes people may undergo during bereavement in a study led by Thomas Buckley.

“Good grief” is a common phrase used to express frustration, irritation, or even surprise. While this expression gets used every day, many people may not think they’ve experienced good grief or even think good grief exists.

Grief is a response that has many components. Acute grief, for instance, occurs after one learns of a loss. Sadness, constant yearning, and thoughts about the deceased characterize this type of grief. People may also experience hallucinations during acute grief. A similar, more intense form of grief is complicated grief.

Complicated grief, also known as persistent complex bereavement disorder, involves intense emotions and pain that are difficult to recover from even as time passes. Feelings associated with complicated grief can be so debilitating that they prevent people from moving on with their lives.

People going through complicated grief may yearn intensely for the deceased and experience constant sadness. Individuals experiencing complicated grief are unable to accept the reality of the deceased’s passing. They may avoid events, situations, and settings that remind them of someone they lost.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss psychiatrist renowned for her research in the United States about near-death, dying, and grief, identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross based her grief model on her studies of patients’ feelings as they faced terminal illness. Decades after making this model, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross co-wrote her last book with author David Kessler, who identified the sixth stage of grief: meaning. Since the model’s creation, people apply it to general losses and adverse life events.

For instance, the spread of COVID-19 in the United States and many other countries around the world, is causing people to feel emotions related to grief: fear, uncertainty, anxiety, confusion, panic, and more.

Writers, including author David Kessler, acknowledge the losses caused by the pandemic, noting that people may be grieving the loss of normality, their jobs, socializing with others, and the death of a parent, family member, friend, or anyone else who succumbed to the virus.

For many people, the attention, care, tireless dedication, and support that medical workers give them helps them get through difficult times.

In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote that she began giving lectures that featured dying patients talking about their experiences. She intended to “break through the layer of professional denial” that kept patients feeling shunned and alone.

Grieving Healthily

There are healthy ways to grieve. Compassionate, skilled medical professionals can support dying patients, mourning patients, and their loved ones, by allowing them to express themselves, listening to them, and being factual yet gentle without communicating outside of their expertise. Treating practitioners may refer patients or loved ones to mental health professionals to provide them more space to talk about and process their grief healthily. 

Treating practitioners should also have a support system of their own they can turn to when experiencing grief. The conditions of medical workers’ jobs always have, but especially now, exposed them to emotional and physical exhaustion, mental health problems, and in some cases, symptoms of complicated grief.

Trying to suppress grief instead of acknowledging and managing it can prevent medical workers from being effective in caring for sick, dying, and grieving patients. Healthcare providers can benefit from recognizing their grief and resolving it with the help of mental health professionals.

The ongoing pandemic puts healthcare professionals at a higher risk of experiencing burnout, moral injury, and grief symptoms, which is why grief management and self-care are essential.

Reaching Out For Help

Medical professionals need attention, support, care, and compassion—especially now. Treating practitioners and healthcare workers experiencing stress and grief symptoms in the workplace and at home should consult a mental healthcare provider for help. Medical professionals can turn to WithTherapy for help finding a therapist that provides online and phone services during this time of staying at home.

WithTherapy lends its support to all healthcare workers and everyone anxious, struggling, grieving, feeling depressed, and afraid of themselves or their loved ones falling ill with the virus. This dedicated service helps therapists maintain their responsibilities to their clients during social distancing.

With Therapy optimizes the way therapists connect with prospective clients. Understanding medical care providers’ susceptibility to stress, grief, and physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion, WithTherapy connects treating practitioners and medical workers to therapists who will provide them the support, attention, care, and compassion they need and deserve.

WithTherapy increases the accessibility of mental care professionals well-versed in psychiatric disorders and problems and adverse psychological symptoms. Treating practitioners and health workers can utilize this essential resource to find a therapist that suits their specific needs.

Therapists of various specializations can help people cope with fear, stress, grief, and specific emotional symptoms. People suffering from trauma and other comorbid mental illnesses can learn to manage their past and current reality while adjusting to lifestyle changes caused by the coronavirus.
Medical workers—often exposed to grief and stress and dedicated to their healthy, ill, and grieving patients—should prioritize their own physical, mental, and emotional health. WithTherapy reminds health workers that they’re never alone in their stress and grief and that there’s always someone to care for them the way they care for their patients.

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