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Staff member looking out of window

Grief interrupted

Mourning and mental health during COVID-19
By Dr. Rhonda Collins

Revera was the first company in the Canadian senior living sector to appoint a Chief Medical Officer. In her blog series, Dr. Rhonda Collins offers helpful advice for seniors to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.

One thing that defines humanity is the rituals we observe. Our rituals are the fabric that create the bright tapestry of our customs, beliefs and cultures. These defined acts help us recognize achievements and celebrate life’s milestones. COVID-19, however, is robbing us of one of the most important rituals humans observe, the rite to mourn for those whom we’ve lost.

The Canadian Mental Health Association’s Mental Health Week runs from May 4-10 this year, and it’s incredibly important to stop and recognize the toll COVID-19 is having on families and the health professionals being impacted by the pandemic. My heart breaks with the daily reporting of those who have lost their lives and I fear that as the numbers grow around the world, we’re becoming desensitized to the fact that there is a person behind each of those numbers. Death, although sad, is normal, but this is not normal.
Though the health concerns of COVID-19 are obvious, it’s the emotional trauma families and staff are experiencing that worries me

I began my medical career as a nurse before I became a physician. My career has focused on providing the best care I can for older adults, because I felt I could make a big impact in people’s lives. I’ve worked alongside many wonderful people, from dietary aides, PSWs and nurses, who feel the same way. It takes a special person to work with seniors and I’m grateful for the staff at Revera’s residences and homes who carry out their day with compassion and excellence.

Long Term Care is on the frontline of the battle with COVID-19, and the stress our employees are under is immense. Our staff are dealing with the pressure of keeping COVID-19 out of their sites, preventing the spread of the virus among our residents if it does, and caring for our residents who are sick, either as a result of COVID-19 or their regular care needs. On top of this, they are of course worried about their own health and the safety of their families. I want to emphasize how proud I am to be a part of this team and I’d stand shoulder to shoulder with them any day.

Though the health concerns of COVID-19 are obvious, it’s the emotional trauma families and staff are experiencing that worries me. Death is not unusual in long term care homes, as residents are often acutely sick. One of the most moving rituals in long term care homes is the walk of honour, where family, residents and staff gather to pay their final respects to a resident who has passed, and they are given the dignity they deserve. For our staff, it’s also a chance for them to process the grief of losing someone that they cared for.

This opportunity has been stripped away by COVID-19. Government issued health directives have instituted requirements for dealing with death. Families are not allowed to be with their loved one so our employees will be with them to let them know they’re loved when they pass. None of the usual rituals are carried out. My heart breaks for the families and the staff who cared deeply for them.

I understand this pain intimately. My uncle just passed away and losing him has been especially painful because of social distancing. I wasn’t able to be there when he died and I’m unable to provide in-person support to my family because COVID-19 is forcing us to keep our distance from one another. We’re not able to grieve or celebrate his life as a family and it’s this that I’ve found to be the most difficult.

In this new environment, Revera has adopted ways to recognize our residents who have lost their battle with COVID-19 by adopting what’s called a “medical pause,” or moment of silence. Instead of gathering in the halls to bid farewell we stop and take a moment to reflect on the life that was. Some will pray, others may think of a memory, sometimes we will recite a short poem to help us in our reflection. It is a deeply personal moment. We will not allow our resident to be forgotten, we will not dehumanize our response to this pandemic.

COVID-19 may have interrupted our rituals, but it will not rob us of our humanity and compassion for the residents we care for. Mourning is a normal process for people to channel grief and find comfort. Holding onto grief is not healthy and it’s important that we don’t normalize doing so during this pandemic. Our frontline workers who are facing this virus head on need to feel our support because right now they have the weight of the world on their shoulders. So, my message is simple, just be kind because you have no idea what battle the other person is going through.

“Don’t think of me as gone away, my journey’s just begun,
Life holds so many facets, this earth is only one.
Just think of me as resting from the sorrows and the tears
In a place of warmth and comfort, where there are no days and years.
Think how I must be wishing that we could know today
How nothing but our sadness can really pass away.
And think of me as living in the hearts of those I touched,
For nothing loved is ever lost and I was loved so much.”
“I’d like the memory of me to be a happy one.
I’d like to leave an afterglow of smiles when life is done.
I’d like to leave an echo whispering softly down the ways,
Of happy times and laughing times and bright and sunny days.”

                                                                         Ellen Brenneman

Dr. Rhonda Collins, Chief Medical Officer of Revera
By Dr. Rhonda Collins
Dr. Rhonda Collins brings passion and expertise in memory care, dementia, falls prevention and clinical quality improvement to the role of Revera’s Chief Medical Officer. Dr. Collins is a family physician with a certificate of added competence in Care of the Elderly from the College of Family Physicians of Canada.