Grief is often an unwelcome visitor among healthcare professionals. Despite facing suffering and death on a frequent basis, we often try to avoid the grief of others, and repress our own. Yet in the midst of a global pandemic, the general public and NHS staff are becoming closely acquainted with grief—as we face loss, personal sacrifice, and death on a much more frequent basis. In fact, we already are. As the junior doctor on-call last weekend, I had more end of life discussions in one weekend than I have had in the whole of my training to date and I watched normally upbeat colleagues cry quietly as they saw patients deteriorate and die.
Even outside of this time of crisis, when things are running “normally”, we witness grief often as healthcare professionals. We see the “worst moments” of people’s lives play out before our eyes, as we watch a family lose their mother, brother or child, or as we break bad news to someone who doesn’t expect it. As we witness grief, we learn to equate grief with “failure”, for it is what results when our efforts to keep someone’s loved one alive have been unsuccessful. We learn to equate grief with stress, as often it rears its head in forms which are difficult—the “angry” relative, the “complaining” family, the “disengaged” patient. And we are not only witnesses to grief at work, but we experience it ourselves too. Whether it’s feeling the loss of a patient or dealing with private loss whilst we care for others, we sometimes find that there’s little space or time for our emotions in the working day.
And in this time of unprecedented crisis, as the pressure mounts, as hospital capacity bows, as the days get longer and the patients sicker, grief is going to get pushed further and further into an ever-smaller corner. The temptation, as time and energy run short, is to repress our own negative emotions, and avoid the negative emotions of others. Yet in doing so, we forget that grief is natural, and grief is necessary.
Instead, as we encounter the grief of others; as we care for families who are losing those they love, we must give space to grief. By letting grief express itself in all its forms—albeit denial, anger, bargaining or despair, we respect the importance of grief, and its power to free someone to move forward in acceptance of their new reality. It is in that space that we are able to meet with the person grieving and offer comfort and compassion. This will be especially important, as we encounter families, partners and friends who have lost the one they love in a manner which is sudden, unfair and unexpected.
And as we, healthcare professionals, encounter death and loss—we must give space to our own grief. It is the means by which we process trauma, shedding bitterness along the way. It is the means by which we respect the value of life, enabling us to fight for the life of our next patient. It is the means by which we demonstrate vulnerability, permitting our colleagues to care for us and to seek our care too. Grief is the means by which we will continue to work through the loss, through the sacrifice and through the exhaustion. For though we might see grief as the antithesis of hope, it is in fact an important part of sustaining hope. Yes, we need to laugh, and yes, we need light-hearted moments in the day, but we also need to acknowledge loss in all its ugliness if we are to make it through this crisis intact.
Grief is a natural and necessary part of human experience and a natural and necessary part of our work as healthcare professionals. So, even in the busiest and most relentless day—take a moment to pause, a moment to feel the weight of loss, and a moment to allow a colleague to set their weight down too. Ignore the awkwardness of sadness and sit quietly, permitting grief into the room. Give space to grief, for it may just be the best chance we have at hope.
Rebekah Judge is a Foundation Year 2 doctor currently working in Acute Medicine in London. Twitter @Rebekah_Judge
Competing interests: None declared