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Rachael Falk, PSYD

I had only been a licensed clinical psychologist for 10 months before the COVID-19 pandemic made its way to the US. As a specialist in geropsychology­- the application of knowledge and the provision of psychological services to older adults- I had been prepared for the types of losses that one can expect in this population. The topic of my doctoral dissertation even focused on bereavement. I was beginning to find my stride and my comfort zone in my new job at a local Jewish senior housing and healthcare company, spending a majority of my time with patients on the long-term chronic hospital floors.

And then everything changed.

As our knowledge of the crisis grew, so did the restrictions at my workplace. One of the hardest was the choice to cease all visitation for our patients, of which our facility was an early adapter in this area, even in cases when the patient was actively dying. Despite our best efforts, the virus entered our inpatient units and some of our housing sites, and has run rampant like wildfire. I continue to suit-up in protective gear and see my patients every day, knowing that this has become one of the most emotionally difficult and frightening times in our patients’ long lives. As their clinician, I too struggle with the emotional pangs of this crisis: worrying about my vulnerable parents, my friends who also work in healthcare, the possibility of bringing home the virus to my significant other. I was wholly unprepared for this type of grief. Every day, I worry most about the patients with whom I have built strong emotional ties and who trust me for support. I worry that I can’t help them. I worry that my storage for compassion might dwindle as I become exhausted fighting this war. I worry that these folks for whom I care so deeply will test positive, and that in a matter of days they could be gone. How can I make the time or the emotional space to grieve while this is all still happening every day? How do I honor the memory of these wonderful people who tragically lost their lives in this way, without their families or loved ones there to bring them the comfort they deserved?

One of the lessons I am continuously learning is that self-care is not selfish; in fact, it is essential. My self-care needs change every day, and often throughout the day. Sometimes I need to spend a few moments in my office with the door shut and my mask off, allowing myself to cry. Sometimes I need to take a few moments in my car to regroup before I come into my apartment at the end of the day, allowing for some separation between work and home. Sometimes I need to eat something comforting, something I would normally consider an indulgence; and other times, I need to make a healthy meal so I can feel more like myself again. Sometimes I feel better when I pray for my patients who are currently COVID-positive, and other times, I’d rather put a Disney movie on my TV and allow my worries to subside, even if it’s a temporary reprieve. I exercise, I call friends, I check-in with family, I snuggle with my cat. It is all acceptable right now. I’m learning to be more comfortable with my ever-changing needs, as well as those of my patients; learning to tolerate that there may be times when I just won’t be at my best. And I can prepare myself for the day when this is all over, and we can truly grieve the way we all- personally, and as a society- must.

Are you an essential worker? Contact Tali Puterman to share your story!