Coping with grief amid Covid: 'Only wrong thing to say is saying nothing'
- Credit: Louise Head
An employee at Queen's and King George hospitals, reflecting on a year of Covid, has spoken about losing her mum, sister and husband in succession and coping with grief during the pandemic.
Louise Head, an associate director of research who has worked at the Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust for 22 years, first lost her younger sister to breast cancer in 2018.
Her partner, Michael, died 10 months ago after being diagnosed with spinal cancer when he was experiencing back pain. He died, aged 55, just four weeks after being diagnosed.
On the day Michael died, Louise’s mother started chemotherapy for lung cancer. This coincided with the first wave of Covid-19, making it especially difficult for the family who were unable to see her.
Speaking openly about death, alongside small gestures from others, is what helped Louise through it.
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She said: “Watching someone you love die is a lonely place to be and for me, it was the little things which made a difference.
“When those you love are dying, your world no longer makes sense and every plan you’ve made disappears.
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"You need an anchor and for me, that was information from the clinicians caring for them.
"Because not only are you powerless to the disease that's taken hold, you are also dependent on the clinicians around you to guide and help you through, because that's all you have.
"So you need reassurance from them, not that they could cure them, but that they would do what they could so they wouldn’t suffer.
"There is nothing harder than sitting on a ward with someone and desperately chasing information.
“Kindness mostly, from the doctor who spent his break hunting for a wheelchair with me, to the hospice staff who called daily, even though they didn’t yet have a bed for my mother, to remind me they were on it.
"They may be tiny things, but, in the storm you’re in, they mean the world to you. Empathy, compassion and honesty were also important, as well as communication which was huge for us. No one shied away from talking about death, so I knew what I was dealing with."
Honesty from health staff meant Louise had time to prepare and make plans to bring the family members home before they died.
She added: “I watched all three of them waste away and that was dreadful. However, as each stage of dying gets worse, there comes an element of peace, as you know they will be out of their misery.
"No matter how desperately you want to hold onto them, you wish peace for them. For each of them, the last day of their lives was much more peaceful than the run up to it.”
And while humour is not expected in such difficult times, Louise pointed out that loved ones do not become different people because they are dying: "My mum and Michael were funny, and my sister did stand-up comedy. Sometimes, making a joke in the darkest moments has been my salvation.
“People need people, especially in our darkest moments. I’ve watched doctors approaching dying patients with a smile and ask them how they’re feeling. That can make such a difference. The only wrong thing you can say about death is to say nothing at all.”
Louise featured on the trust's podcast Teaching for our Time series, which was released on March 23. The series is made for the palliative care team at the hospital who provide passionate end of life care, in order to educate and share experiences.
It coincided with Marie Curie’s National Day of Refection and the year anniversary of the first Covid-19 lockdown in the UK.
Listen to the podcast here.
Patients and their relatives can self-refer to the Specialist Palliative Care Team through health care professionals or direct on 01708 435 026, although a health care provider still needs to complete a referral form, available on the same number.