“The Most Important Thing You Can Do Right Now”

Two surefire ways to feel less helpless during the pandemic.

Photo by Nani Chavez on Unsplash.

By Deborah Carr for Psychology Today

The COVID-19 pandemic has made us feel helpless in ways we’ve never felt before. We can’t enjoy a meal at our favorite restaurant, get that much-needed haircut or — for 30 million Americans — earn a living. We all fight these feelings of powerlessness in our own ways. I wanted to feel useful, so I signed up for a local program that sends volunteers to beleaguered nursing homes. Nursing homes have struggled with staff shortages even before the pandemic, and are now desperate as their hard working employees are out sick with the virus themselves or caring for ill relatives.

The first thing volunteers do when they arrive at a long-term care facility is get a thorough health screening. After getting a clean bill of health, it’s time to suit up. A plastic smock that covers the entire body. Little blue booties over my sneakers that made me slip and slide as I walked on the smooth linoleum floor. That was the easy part. The hard part was the N95 mask. Covered by a disposable surgical mask. Covered by a plastic shield. I struggled to breathe as a staff member tugged at the snug elastic bands and helped me to keep my eyeglasses in place. “How do you do this every day?!” I asked incredulously of the young women who worked long shifts seven days a week. “We’re just doing our job,” was their humble response.

PPE in place, I was ready to go to work. Let me clean rooms, serve meals, make beds… anything to feel useful. After an hour of cleaning, a young CNA ran over to me, her voice panicked. “We have a patient actively dying right now. Can you sit with her? It’s the most important thing you can do right now.

I shuffled down to the patient’s room, where a nursing assistant was holding the hand of a frail small woman (“J.”), who was breathing heavily and hooked up to oxygen. As I walked in, J. was having what would turn out to be her final ZOOM conversation with her family. The nurse held up the iPhone, where J. could see her children and her grandchildren. J’s daughter was sobbing as she said goodbye to her mother, letting her know it was okay to go, and that her family would always love her. A young granddaughter shouted out “we love you grandma.” A teenage grandson reminded her she was the coolest nana ever. A son begged the nurse to let the family come to the nursing home to say ‘goodbye’ from outside J’s window, a request the nurse had to deny. J. was clearly a well-loved woman. The walls of her room were adorned with family photos taken at Disney, at school graduations, and birthday parties. Mother’s Day and Easter cards lined her windowsill. The nursing home staff, visibly shaken from the ZOOM call, repeatedly told J. how much they loved her.

I continued to sit silently with J. for a few hours after the phone call ended. The nursing home staff were insistent that I stay with her, rather than clean food trays, because they did not want her dying in her room alone. I was left alone, holding J’s hand, thinking about the anguish that J. and tens of thousands of other COVID-19 patients experienced.

As a bereavement researcher who has written for more than two decades about dying, I know that all deaths are not the same. Many of us will be fortunate enough to have a “good death,” which means dying free of machines, being surrounded by our loved ones (ideally, at home), and breathing easily until the moment we take our last breath. For the family members left behind, the sadness and grief are less devastating when we know our loved one was not suffering at the end.

But COVID-19 deaths rob our loved ones of that experience. COVID-19 deaths exemplify “bad deaths.” Labored breathing and being hooked up to ‘machines’ are hallmarks of most COVID-19 deaths. But most tragically, patients are dying in nursing homes and hospitals, without their family by their side. Some are fortunate that caring staff members will arrange ZOOM meetings so that families can say ‘goodbye’ virtually. But that is small solace for the loved ones left behind, who cannot squeeze their mother’s hand, or kiss their father’s forehead in their final moments of life. These deaths aren’t just “bad” for the patient, they’re much harder for family members to grieve.

Photo by United Nations COVID-19 Response on Unsplash.

All of us can help protect our own loved ones (and the loved ones of people we’ve never met) of a “bad death” from COVID-19. Simply wearing a cloth mask in public and keeping our social distance are proven strategies for stopping the disease’s spread. It’s especially important because asymptomatic people may carry the virus to others, even if they feel just fine. As easy as these two things are, our daily newsfeed is filled with stories of angry shoppers at the Dollar Store or protesters at state capitols who refuse to wear their masks. This is how they think they’re regaining control over their lives — by standing their ground and refusing to mask up.

Frustration and a desire to assert control are perfectly natural feelings in these troubled times. Some are upset that they can’t attend religious services, and feel that the state is depriving them of an essential part of their lives. But don’t all religions teach us to follow the Golden Rule?: treat others as you would like to be treated? In COVID-19 times, that translates into: if you don’t want someone to spread the virus to you or your loved ones, don’t spread the virus to them. People can follow their religious teachings beyond the walls of their house of worship.

Many are frustrated (or terrified) because they’ve lost their jobs, their businesses have closed, and their savings are being depleted. This can be especially hard for men, who were raised to believe it’s their job to support their families. As devastating as the recent shutdown has been, the financial struggles facing many middle-class Americans — the hairdressers and small business owners and building contractors who are such an important part of our communities — have been in the making for years.

In January 2020, before coronavirus was on our radar, just 40 percent of Americans said they had $1,000 saved in case of an emergency. That means that millions were already living on the brink of financial insecurity, a fragility made more devastating by the recent shutdown. But while middle-and working-class Americans’ struggles have grown, the top 5% continue to get richer — thanks to decades of tax policies that favor the rich. It’s no wonder we’re so frustrated. But refusing to wear a mask (and helping to spread the virus) only means more heartache, extended business closures, and ironically — intensifying those feelings of powerlessness that we want desperately to squash.

We all struggle with feelings of helplessness right now. But the simple steps of wearing our face masks in public and observing social distance can help us to reclaim power over the virus that has shaken us all to the core. It is the most important thing we all can do right now.

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. This is a revised version of an article originally published on May 17, 2020.

Cutting-edge research and commentary out of Boston University, home to Nobel laureates, Pulitzer winners and Guggenheim Scholars. Find an expert: bu.edu/experts

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