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Serenity Despite Chaos: Finding Peace with Anxiety and Grief

Posted By Melissa R. Thornburg, MA, Thursday, April 30, 2020

With COVID-19 currently monopolizing our daily lives, many of our previously normal routines have drastically changed. From how students are educated to where and how we work, to how we access food and other goods that we need, to how we socialize (or not) and what distance we keep from those we love, this worldwide pandemic has forced a new “normal.” This sudden, but also gradual upheaval has left some safe at home and others still actively working outside the home. However, for all of us, this transition has surely caused a myriad of emotions that can be confusing and hard to pin down, because, just like our routines, our emotions may not be “normal” due to this unprecedented worldwide collective experience.

What is it that you’re feeling? Are you anxious, scared or sad? Are you somewhat relieved because you’ve been forced to slow down and breathe, but worried about your job, finances, and the quality of digital education being provided to your children? Maybe you have cabin fever and are longing to step out, eat at a restaurant or take in a live show? You are missing something, perhaps, and longing for something else. You might feel discouraged, but hopeful that things will soon change and be better. It is confusing, frustrating and chaotic. You may be experiencing both anxiety and grief.

As a psychologist and through my previous role as the Director of Patient Experience at a large healthcare system, it is in my nature to look for peace when experiencing anxiety and grief. Having personally experienced several heartbreaking patient and family encounters in healthcare and hearing and watching news of our courageous frontline staff facing this every day, I wanted to offer some details around how to provide serenity for our healthcare heroes despite the current chaos. I know that it seems highly unlikely given the current pace of work in some of our most significantly affected healthcare systems, but in some way or another, it is possible.

Starting simply, it seems that the effects of sincere gratitude and appreciation both in and out of the workplace have been researched extensively. From that, we’ve learned a heartfelt and genuine “thank you” delivered in person or hand-written can make someone feel appreciated, help motivate them to do more, and can also have a positive effect on their overall health and well-being. This can be accomplished by anyone, whether it be a leader, a coworker or someone from a different department that recognizes how hard staff are working. Even without a budget or extra staff, this simple and effective skill of showing gratitude and appreciation can help during our current COVID-19 chaos. Start with saying thanks, then acknowledge the hard work of all those hospital employees, validate their feelings of anxiety, despair, frustration and grief. Let them know that it is real, it is normal and it is okay to express those feelings without judgement.

Next, consider having a basket of individually wrapped snacks and coffee, water and tea. Put them in an “off stage” private space and allow staff to take 10-minute breaks to not only refresh their minds and spirits but also nourish their bodies. Small cracker packs, chips and cookies seem to be the most popular and accessible choices, but a variety of mixed nuts, trail mix and jerky sticks may also be a slightly healthier option and provide some protein to your busy staff as they go on with their day. Having fresh apples or other fruit is a consideration, but they may need to be washed and wrapped individually.

If you have additional resources, this break can be offered in a Serenity Room. As the Director of Patient Experience, my staff and I found a rarely used conference room that was being used as more of a storage room. With permission, we cleared the room, cleaned it ourselves and developed it into a quiet, healing place for breaks. We put a note out to local churches, community groups, and supportive businesses asking for donations of a number of items including wickless candles, new Apple iPods for music, small desk-top fountains, sand trays, “twinkle lights”, aromatherapy diffusers, essential oils, black-out curtains and recliners. We also asked for individually wrapped snacks, water, scented hand lotions, sleep masks, gel sleep masks that be cooled in a refrigerator, word searches and cross word puzzles. We received several of these items, and others items were donated by staff members. We had enough to create two separate rooms just from the generosity of our community members and staff.

We blacked-out windows, set up comfortable chairs (a couple were unused reclining chairs from our OB unit!) and had soft music playing with the option to choose an IPod that had additional playlists and disposable headphones. We had snacks, aromatherapy diffusers and several essential oils that staff could choose from. We even had small absorbent sticker tabs the staff could put a drop of essential oil on and stick to their uniforms to enjoy for the rest of their shift. They could recline for a few minutes, do a mindless crossword puzzle, or close their eyes and just relax in a softly lit room. The room was well-used and appreciated.

If you don’t have access to all the resources above, try to convert an unused family waiting room temporarily (since visitation is restricted) or an unused family conference room. Use poster board to block windows, plug in a lamp with soft lighting, try to borrow some reclining chairs from OB, and create a simpler version of what is described above. The reality is that staff will appreciate any quiet space and an opportunity to briefly unwind.

Lastly, it is important to provide consistent and ongoing support to staff working the frontlines. To ensure that this is happening, gather a team of qualified crisis intervention and debriefing individuals to deploy as a Support Team, or what we called a Code Lavender team. In our healthcare system, a Code Lavender could be called during or after a sentinel event, a patient death, a staff crisis or a particularly difficult emergency room experience. When this was called, a team of individuals came with snacks, resources, and a willingness to debrief and provide support to the staff involved. Instead of having this as a reactive team for COVID-19, make it a proactive team by having these individuals available and rounding on busy spaces, checking-in on staff and offering support without “getting in the way.” These individuals can also staff your Serenity Rooms and provide quiet and gentle support for anyone who needs it. For more information on Code Lavender click here.

Whether you are able to say a quick but heartfelt “thank you,” offer snacks in a break room or Serenity Room, or even in an empty office away from the chaos, small opportunities to honor healthcare staff during this world pandemic will provide them with the care and support they need to continue to effectively treat their patients with compassion and respect. Look to your community to help provide some of the resources and look internally for skilled crisis intervention or counseling staff that are not currently active in their departments to be called on to make a difference for their peers. At the end of the day, every person deserves gratitude and appreciation, so don’t forget to take care of yourself, too!

Thank you for all you do for patients, families and staff members during this crisis.


Melissa Thornburg is a pCare Senior Performance Improvement Coach. In this role she assists clients on how to use real-time patient feedback and education for performance improvement on key strategic initiatives. Previously at the Planetree organization, Melissa worked as a Patient Experience Advisor with the VA and other organizations both nationally and internationally. Prior to Planetree, Melissa worked at the Cleveland Clinic as Director of Patients First, Experience Facilitator and Patient Experience Champion helping to establish several Patient and Family Advisory Councils and to lead both system-wide and local patient experience initiatives. Melissa earned a Master of Arts degree in clinical psychology from Western Michigan University, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology from Niagara University.

Tags:  anxious  community  COVID-19  patient experience 

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