By Jennifer Hill Buehrer LMSW
As a social worker in the field of palliative care, I encounter a lot of suffering. It’s the reason my job exists, really. Every day I talk and listen to people with serious or terminal illnesses and support the people who love and care for them. My teammates treat their physical suffering, and I focus on the emotional, psychological and spiritual pain. I frequently hear from people that they don’t know how I can do this work every day… but the fact is that you learn ways to compartmentalize the suffering you encounter, and leave it behind at the end of the work day (most of the time anyway). You learn how to anticipate the things people are feeling in these situations and reflect their thoughts and emotions back to them in a way that leaves them feeling validated and not alone. Having experienced so many of my own losses, that ability to compartmentalize has been the most effective coping and survival technique I could find that allows me to be effective in helping others dealing with loss.
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly been the biggest challenge to these skills that I have ever faced – even more than the loss of my little brother five years ago. That was a tough year, for sure, and I had to adjust some of my practices for a while after he died in order to process my own grief. But this… the sheer magnitude of the suffering, and the duration of this crisis, and what looks to me like a fading light at the end of the tunnel is starting to get to me. I’ve struggled watching bedside staff on the “hot” units working so hard and feeling so hopeless at times. Yesterday I had really emotional phone conversations with two different families of people in their 40s and 50s with COVID, about the fact that they were not going to survive, and discussing how we would approach the end of their lives given that their loved ones can’t be here. And I hung up the phone and cried. Recently, we had three hot units, when not long ago we were back down to one. When and how is this ever going to get better? At least that’s how I feel sometimes. And I have to admit that it follows me home.
But I’ll be honest, the worst part of this for me right now is seeing and hearing people outside the hospital walls express doubt that it’s as bad as we hear it is. It’s people questioning the value of vaccination and masking – or even refusing to do either – while I watch patient after patient die despite the best care and treatment by the best professionals I know. It feels so disrespectful of those professionals that I can hardly stand it. People in my own extended family express such thoughts and I have to avoid them altogether for fear I will lose it completely if I engage in that conversation. I know that it would be better for me to develop my argument and make the attempt to educate them about what is really going on, but I just don’t have the energy or the emotional reserve right now. And after more than a year of this, and well over three million deaths worldwide, I can hardly believe I would have to.
I want so much to take this article in the optimistic and supportive direction that I always try to take… but I’m not in that space right now. And I decided that, rather than wait until I am and send you another set of encouraging thoughts, I would just be honest. I know that most if not all of us have times like this, and days when it feels like this will never end. All we can do is set an example by doing what is right, and take care of ourselves physically and psychically, and trust that we’re as resilient as I’ve been saying we are. Even optimists like me need to be reminded sometimes.