Health-care providers hit hard by grief as COVID-19 numbers continue to climb

With more health-care providers seeking help and support for coping with grief, the Canadian Virtual Hospice has launched a new online module that gives them the tools and resources they need to process what they are experiencing during COVID.

'Watching people die alone ... has an impact on you,' says a senior Winnipeg nurse

For many health-care workers, 'there is a reluctance to talk about work-related grief and a tendency to push it down and turn it away,' says the executive director of Canadian Virtual Hospice. (Alliance Images/Shutterstock)

A senior nurse in Winnipeg says she is battle-weary and saddened by the amount of suffering and death she has seen caring for patients with COVID-19.

"I am angry, I am grieving and I don't know how much longer I can carry on," she said, breaking down in tears.

CBC is calling her "Karen," but is not disclosing her identity, because she fears reprisal and disciplinary action for speaking out.

"Watching people suffer and watching people die alone, it has an impact on you," said the nurse, who primarily works in intensive care. 

"Seeing the fear in people's eyes in the cubicle because they know they have COVID and they know they could die, and I can't be close to them to comfort them — it is such a heavy emotional toll."

In many instances now, health-care professionals have become a stand-in for family members who aren't allowed to be with a dying loved one because of COVID restrictions.

The connections health-care providers would normally make with families — helping them fill in the gaps about a patient, or being there for emotional support and comfort — sometimes aren't possible now, which puts the providers at a higher risk for grief, according to a Manitoba palliative care physician.

"Those connections with patients and families are really important in helping us through our own grief in the long run. We don't have the ability to make those connections with COVID," said Dr. Cornelius Woelk, who works at the Boundary Trails Health Centre, which serves the Winkler and Morden area.

He adds it is harder to make those connections now that everyone is required to wear personal protective equipment.

"We are talking to people about very serious things through masks. And so you go home and worry you really haven't made it clear to someone, or that you haven't connected with them thoroughly enough because of all the PPE," Woelk said.

'I don't want to go to work'

Karen says she sees what plays out in intensive care units spilling over into her personal life.

When she's getting ready to return to work after her days off, she is anxious, wondering what has changed, how many patients she will have to take care of and whether she'll be able to handle her workload, she says.

"You wake up in the middle of the night and think, 'What is the day going to bring? Am I going to be able to handle it?'

"Then I  wake up in the morning and I think, 'I have to go to work. I don't want to go to work. I am scared.' Sometimes I cry on the way to work because it is so overwhelming."

If we don't somehow process the losses that we have in our life … they will come back to haunt us at some other time."- Dr. Cornelius Woelk

She's afraid of getting sick and bringing home the virus to her loved ones, but she doesn't talk about it with them. She doesn't want to burden them.

Her religious faith anchors her, she says, and she prays for protection and for the patient she is caring for.

She also sees a counsellor for support, has a close friend who's a retired nurse, and finds solace in her pets and baking.

But Karen admits she is terrible at self-care. 

New resource for health-care workers

That's not an uncommon theme among health-care providers, according to the Canadian Virtual Hospice — an international online resource based out of Winnipeg that offers support and home-based resources for working through grief.

The hospice recently launched a module through its website that addresses what many health-care workers are grappling with during the pandemic — grief they experience that is largely unacknowledged and unsupported.

"There is a reluctance to talk about work-related grief and a tendency to push it down and turn it away," said Shelly Cory, the executive director of Canadian Virtual Hospice.

"COVID is bringing that into sharper focus, and how that needs to change."

Cory said there's been phenomenal response to the module, which was fast-tracked and launched two weeks ago, and has been accessed by more than 1,500 people so far.

"The new module normalizes the fact that people working in health care are grieving, they are experiencing this heaviness, they are experiencing this sorrow. And it also gives them ways to cope with this grief," said Cory.

Woelk welcomes the resource. He knows if given the help, there is a fair amount of resiliency in the health-care field. He hopes more reach out.

"Grief comes back to haunt us," he said. "If we don't somehow process the losses that we have in our life, whatever they are, they will come back to haunt us at some other time."


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