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Coping with Personal Grief as a COVID-19 Physician

By Dr. Kumar Ashish

We’ve lost so many lives over the past two years. As a physician working at a hospital since the beginning of it, I have witnessed the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. This global crisis has resulted in worldwide lockdowns, the economic collapse of countries, and universally rising mortality and morbidity. Although the first wave of the pandemic came with the most uncertainty, it was the second wave that resulted in the most personally disruptive time of my life. It brought a multitude of issues to my home country, India. Due to a lack of resources, the healthcare system there collapsed under the pressures of the second wave.

April 2020 ICU days, amidst COVID-19 pandemic

In early 2021, optimism was high as the development of the vaccine gave hope to a large percentage of the world. The vaccine was like a light at the end of a long and dark tunnel. I immediately urged my parents, who are both in old age, to get the vaccine. My mom responded well to the first dose, but my dad developed a fever. I thought it was because of an adverse effect from the vaccine, but eventually we found that his oxygen saturation was low, and he was COVID positive. We arranged oxygen at home since going to the hospital was very risky at the time. His symptoms kept worsening, so my eldest brother took him to hospital. However, because of the lack of resources in India, he could not get the ICU bed he needed at that time. Unfortunately, he passed away in April 2021. I was a thousand miles away from my family during that time. All flights to India were banned and embassies were closed during the second wave of the the pandemic. I could not see my dad or comfort my mother. Quickly my optimism ended, and I felt hopeless.

My father

Being a physician who contributed tirelessly to serving patients on ICU and COVID floors during the pandemic, I always maintained a positive attitude for the sake of my patients. Even during this extremely difficult time I continued to do so, despite experiencing deep frustration and grief. I understood the magnitude of COVID from seeing the first-hand impact of it every day and checking the evolving statistics, but you can’t really comprehend the true effects until you lose someone you love. My heart felt tremendous pain after losing my dad. I was very close to him and I miss him every single day. The flashbacks of my memories with him still bring me to tears and the pain of not being able to go back to India to attend his funeral constantly haunts me. To preserve my sanity, I try to remind myself there’s only so much in life you can control.

Graduation day, class of 2021

Without a clear timeline for when my sadness would end, I instead decided to reflect on both the good and bad of enduring a tragedy like the loss of a parent during a pandemic. My ability to connect on a deeper level with patients being among the very few good things I try to focus on. I take a similar approach when thinking about our position as a society moving forward now in 2022. We have lost so many lives, including many doctors. I ask myself, “How can we ever compensate for those talents? How do you properly honor them?” I think about my home country, India. The lives lost there, the children that became orphans, the wood shortage after so many cremations. People were selling oxygen cylinders and remdesavir medications in black markets. Evictions and joblessness continue to challenge many. There is the tragedy of war, and a marked increase in mental health conditions worldwide. On top of the pandemic, we are collectively enduring these other considerable problems.

Despite everything, the pandemic has rewarded us with one benefit at the end of the day. It has shown us where we’ve failed and what it will take to restore good faith in humanity. Moving past COVID requires higher vaccination rates and health precautions from all of us, but moving forward as a society requires practicing compassion, empathy, and selflessness. During times of tragedy, it is also important to find happiness in other places. My friends supported me greatly during this hard time. Reach out to the people around you, connect with others, and show kindness. This is how we can make the world a better place.

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” – Dalai Lama


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