Unravelling grief: A scoping review of physicians’ and nurses’ experiences of grief during COVID-19

Burm, Sarah B.D. | $29,961

Nova Scotia Dalhousie University 2021 SSHRC

In the last century, how current society deals with loss and grief has changed significantly. We are expected to move through grief quickly and quietly; our high-paced culture making it challenging to process grief, much less talk about it. In the pandemic’s wake, physicians and nurses have been especially challenged to find time to feel and process their grief. The uncertainty of the pandemic and ensuing restrictions means physicians and nurses are bearing witness to, and encountering death, dying, grief, and loss in new and unforeseen forms. Consequently, many physicians and nurses find themselves severely impacted by unforeseen sources of anxiety and calamity (e.g., loss of daily routine, inability to engage face-to-face with patients, families, and colleagues) while still needing to ‘keep calm and carry on’ with the routine elements of their work. As a result, many physicians and nurses are experiencing a decreased sense of connection to their patients, their colleagues, and their vocation.

Coping with loss and grief is difficult at any time, but amid a global pandemic it’s even harder. Physicians and nurses are experiencing alarming levels of burnout prompting many to exit the health care workforce in all domains of practice and across all segments of the health system. The repercussions of avoiding any acknowledgement or discussion of loss and grief are serious. We must make space for grief across the healthcare professions. Left unaddressed, this cumulative grief and loss will have devastating effects on physicians’ and nurses’ psychological and physical well-being, patient safety and quality of care, and the sustainability of the healthcare workforce. Recognizing this, we are proposing a scoping review that looks at the ways physicians’ and nurses’ experience the process of grief during the COVID‑19 pandemic. Our review question is: What does the literature tell us about physicians’ and nurses’ experiences of grief during the COVID‑19 pandemic? Sub-questions we will explore include: (1) How has the pandemic influenced physicians’ and nurses’ experiences of grief? (2) What steps might healthcare and education institutions take to address the inevitable toll of health care work, and support grieving health care providers?

Out team, made up of experienced researchers, clinicians, and educators is aptly positioned to oversee this project and offer tangible, actionable insights about the pandemic’s impact on physicians and nurses experiences of grief and loss. Critically assessing the relationship between physicians’ and nurses’ grief, loss, and the COVID‑19 pandemic will identify roles that the academic, public, private, and not-for-profit sectors can play in promoting a more connected and resilient health care workforce. Increasing knowledge and outlining opportunities for future research and educational innovation in this domain is imperative to obtain a nuanced understanding of the different types of grief health care providers are experiencing, enhance the professional fulfillment of health care providers, and maintain a functioning healthcare workforce. Our work will normalize grief in the health care workforce, producing findings that are relevant to other health care professions and future catastrophic scenarios.

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