In early February, I got the phone call I had been dreading for months: My 82-year-old grandfather, Charlie Law, had passed away. I had tried to prepare as best I could; Grandpa had Parkinson’s disease and dementia, and he had been in decline physically and mentally for about four years. Still, I hadn’t seen my grandparents in person for two of those years because of the pandemic.
When the first waves of shock and sadness had washed over me, I was surprised to find myself angry. The loss of my grandfather was inevitable, but it felt like the illness that ultimately took his life—COVID-19—wasn’t. Although my grandfather had been vaccinated and given a boost, his dementia had confined him to a nursing home, meaning he was at the mercy of emergency services and the surrounding community to protect him from the virus. Although I had accepted that my grandfather had not long to live, and I knew he was suffering, I had hoped (perhaps naively) that he would slip away in his sleep. COVID-19 had even robbed him of that.
Shortly after Grandpa passed away, I asked my father, Dr. Kevin Law — a physician who specializes in pulmonary disease and critical care at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton in New Jersey — how he is coping with the loss of his father to COVID-19. 19. He has helped lead his hospital’s response to the pandemic through wave after rise over the past two years, treating approximately 1,200 patients with COVID-19 in the hospital.
Grandpa getting COVID and suffering was what I hoped wouldn’t happen.
KEVIN WET: I had an educated guess that he would get a life-threatening infection this winter: either a urinary tract infection, pneumonia, or COVID. I wasn’t there, but I don’t think he suffered. Maybe that’s my mind playing tricks on me, but I’ve seen such patients. If they are very weak, they will pass out and quickly go away.
I know my mom was a little upset about it and felt like he wasn’t protected in the nursing home. But I would like to think that the institution has exercised due diligence to protect the patient. Unfortunately, this latest version of COVID is very contagious. If you’re susceptible, I think there’s no getting around it, whether you’re in public or in an institution.
Has it made it harder for you on the front lines of the pandemic to deal with Grandpa’s decline?
KL: I don’t think I was as present to my parents as I normally would have been, and that was frustrating. I’m very busy, they are in a different part of the country, and sometimes it was risky to travel.
I was surprised you were working the day Grandpa passed away. It must have been hard for you.
KL: For your own mental health, you need to learn how to separate work, play, and private life. I compartmentalize. You have to be able to do your job. You learn over time – no matter how difficult it is sometimes – not to let your professional functioning be hindered. If I did, it would be very difficult to function.
A lot of people said I should have taken a day off, I should have taken a week off. I certainly considered that, but it would have just been way too much for the people I work with. They would be overwhelmed.
I have rather complicated feelings about the circumstances of Grandpa’s death, because like you, I expected him to die anyway. But it just feels bad that people haven’t worked harder to stop the virus from spreading.
KL: Over time, I’ve learned not to waste a lot of energy on people’s behaviors that I can’t change. I try to work on it with individuals, and sometimes I get frustrated when I’m dealing with individuals who don’t have a good explanation as to why they don’t get vaccinated. The fact that some people will be resistant to it is just human nature, and I can’t change that.
I do see people who, even if they are not doing well, are still happy with their decision not to get vaccinated, which to me is remarkable. Or they are willing to accept their fate, as it is.
How have patients treated you recently at this point in the pandemic?
KL: I see a lot of impatience. I see a general misunderstanding. I don’t think they have that much empathy for us when we’re tired, working hard, or working late, or falling behind. I think people were very likeable in the beginning, and I don’t think they are anymore.
They need to understand that many of us are still in the same position. We are still working much harder than we normally would. Even though most of us are vaccinated, we put our livelihoods and health at risk. We really still work for the public and individuals. If they’re angry or frustrated about this whole thing, it shouldn’t be aimed at medical personnel.
How do you deal with your own anger at people who don’t get vaccinated? How do you take care of yourself?
KL: There are times when I have empathy fatigue: when I don’t feel as empathetic as I would normally feel for a sick, infected patient if they aren’t vaccinated. I have a lot of empathy for people who have been vaccinated but have become ill.
Anger is a strong word. It is more frustration and sometimes the feeling of powerlessness over the situation. The time I feel the most is when we are very busy in the hospital. I’ve seen 30 hospitalized COVID patients in one day, sometimes 35. It wears you out. Perhaps my experience will help me cope a little better with the pain of my father’s death. And it helps minimize my anger and frustration.
I think some of the anger people have about the virus and the restrictions placed on them is somehow transferred to doctors, nurses and hospital staff. If I feel like someone is attacking me or pushing their anger out, this is something I can call on to defuse that situation a bit. I say, ‘Listen, I lost my father to this too. So to a certain extent I understand what you’re feeling.”
This post COVID-19 killed my grandfather. But my dad was too busy treating COVID-19 patients to mourn him
was original published at “https://time.com/6148779/covid-19-grief-grandfather/”