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12th June 2020

Care Homes: Coping with Death and Grief during COVID-19

The death of a loved one is one of the most difficult emotional experiences we can have in life. Death is something we regularly deal with working in care homes, but COVID-19 has turned the whole process of dealing with death and grief upside down. Advance care plans and end of life wishes are essential at any time but during this COVID-19 pandemic, there is less time to have these discussions. Multiple deaths and people dying before their time is hard to cope with. You can’t provide the personal level of comfort, care and support that you normally would because of restrictions and PPE. You support and care for your residents the best you can and try to make up for their families not being there.

Relatives who may not be able to be with their loved ones in their final days or hours are left with overwhelming feelings of guilt, sadness, and frustration. Thankfully, the government has recognised the right to say goodbye to loved ones and relaxed restrictions to allow families to visit at the end of life as long as PPE is provided and correct precautions are followed. This goes some way to reducing their distress and helping with the grieving process but visiting may still not be possible if the families themselves are isolating.

If visits are not possible, then as impersonal as it may seem, video contact may help to put families’ minds at rest. It reassures them that their loved ones are being comforted and cared for, otherwise their anxieties may cause them to imagine more traumatic scenarios. It is common for relatives to want to hear about the last moments to help them deal with their grief, so any support and reassurances you can provide will give them comfort.

Following death, the guilt continues and practical support for families is lacking. The caring and gentle approach you normally used to provide is difficult. Your usual manner may be to hug the family member and sit with them to provide support. This may now have to be done over the phone. The situation is stressful and emotional for everyone, and it is hard to know what to say, particularly when your grief may be overwhelming. You may be frightened of saying the wrong thing as your emotions are all over the place. It is ok to be honest about how you feel; saying “I really wish I could give you a hug” or even just, “I don’t know what to say”, lets someone know that you care. Sometimes listening is the best thing you can do. There are also good resources out there to provide more practical and emotional support such as Cruse and Dying Matters (see below).

Managing your grief as well as everyone else’s is a huge burden. Be kind to yourself. You will have made a huge difference to so many and your efforts will be very much appreciated even if they are too overwhelmed themselves to remember to tell you. If you have done your best, then that is enough. At times like this, you rely on your work colleagues for support more than ever because they are the ones who truly understand what you are going through. It is important not to bottle up your feelings and don’t be afraid to seek professional help if you need further emotional support.

This situation is unprecedented and the effects on us all will be felt for many years. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that nobody is invincible.

www.dyingmatters.org.uk

www.cruse.org.uk

*All information is correct at the time of publishing. Use of this material is subject to your acceptance of our terms and conditions.

Katie Farrar

Occupational Therapist

Katie qualified as an Occupational Therapist in the year 2000. For most of her professional career she has worked in the field of older people’s mental health services within community mental health teams. As part of this she has had extensive involvement with people with dementia and their carers, both in the community and in care home settings. Katie is currently working with the Dementia Pathway Team supporting people with dementia in the care home setting and particularly with advanced care planning for end of life care. She has also recently completed the Mental Health Act Best Interest Assessor Course at Leeds Beckett University. Katie has developed and delivered training to care homes on dementia awareness, managing delirium and managing challenging behaviour. As well, she has supported carers to offer meaningful activities and experiences and provided guidance to care homes on improving environments to become dementia friendly. Read more

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