Aikta Verma is an emergency physician and Chief of the Department of emergency services at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.
So how does it end? This was a common philosophical discussion amongst my medical colleagues at the start of the pandemic. A wise friend lamented how there would be no celebration day at the end of this nightmare. Unlike a war, there would be no day where it is declared over; rather, we would likely see a much less gratifying slow decline in cases over several months. We wondered if, perhaps, the day the vaccine was discovered would serve as that day of victory. But that day has come and gone. While it certainly brought a beacon of much needed hope, it also paradoxically led to even more anxiety as we all wondered when it would be our turn, when would our families have an opportunity, and why is this taking so long anyways?
As I struggled to find any shred of patience left within, I wondered why it mattered so much to me — to have a “V-day” for COVID. After much soul searching, I think I found the answer: I needed a day to begin to grieve. After 11 months of being both a front-line emergency physician and a hospital leader supporting the design and execution of our pandemic response, I have not had time to mourn. Every day since the pandemic was declared I’ve carried with me a deep and profound sense of loss. Without the opportunity to mourn, we cannot start to heal. Like many others, I have lost so much. Safety, security, confidence. Physical connections. Emotional stability. Balance. Occasionally I’ve felt a loss of compassion and, frequently, a loss of patience. I’ve lost my sense of self. And I’ve lost joy.
I don’t mean to suggest it has been all bad; many amazing things have happened to me and, indeed, to the world in 2020. But too often, as overachieving optimistic leaders, we are quick to brush past the bad and try to focus on the positive. This is useful for self-preservation, but our capacity for it is not infinite. Eventually, we must feel the loss.
So, I decided to pick a day for mourning. I chose January 1. As we ended the worst year of my generation, and many focused on the hope that the New Year brings, I chose that day to mourn. I set aside time for myself – unusual for a mother-physician-leader. Rather than use that time for my usual self-care activities like exercise, sleep, or watching videos, I put away all the usual distractions and I just sat with my thoughts. I felt the weight of it all. And how heavy it was! I acknowledged the pain I had carried with me for so long, and I allowed myself to simply feel the sadness. I didn’t rush it, or try to comfort myself that everything was going to be okay. I just allowed the feelings to wash over me. I cried. I mourned for all those who died, who suffered, and who have lost so much. I felt the burden of how this pandemic has changed me and, indeed, changed the world.
The catharsis was liberating. I felt a little bit lighter. For the first time in a long time, I felt a sense of peace. I felt like I could start to move forwards and heal. I felt ready to face another day fighting.
So how does it end? As it must. With tears, and a journey.