I See You: When Loved Ones are Hospitalized during COVID

Hayley Harnicher
Hayley Harnicher

To anyone else supporting a family member or close loved one spending time in a psychiatric unit, rehabilitation center, or assisted living facility during this pandemic: I see you. I see the hard conversations, the tears, the fact that every answer just stirs up 12 more questions: Do they have a safe place to go when they are discharged? How can I support them when I can’t physically visit? Will the social worker call me back?

Having a loved one undergo a severe mental health episode during normal circumstances is incredibly challenging and heart-wrenching. Add in the pandemic and the related limitations for travel or visiting the hospital, and it can feel unfathomably helpless. Eventually, though, I have started to feel like I’ve found stable footing. I have finally learned enough of the names of the many social workers, doctors, nurses, and psychologists to feel comfortable knowing where to turn to for support and depending on the day (or minute) you ask me, the immediate crisis seems to be behind us.

We may not all be experiencing exactly the same circumstances – going through this affects each of us in unique ways – but I feel so deeply for you, and I hope I can share a few things I’ve learned so far during this experience:

  • Lean in: Lean into the hard conversations and share what you’re going through with friends and family. Since this all began, I found a core group of family and loved ones who have had a near-constant group chat going with updates and lessons learned. Now that we live in a virtual world, we’ve also spent a lot of time on Zoom, sharing how we’ve been coping, what we’re learning through our own research, and generally, how we’ve been feeling throughout the process. This consistency and support have been invaluable.
  • Delegate: You’re not in this alone! It’s easy to feel isolated, especially in a physically distanced world, but people truly want to support you and to support your loved one. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. The project manager in me wanted control over an uncontrollable situation, and I even went as far as creating a Google sheet to help track everyone’s to-dos, questions, and concerns. While I underestimated the learning curve of this method for older family members, my hope is that you’ll find a method that works for you and your support network.
  • Feel your feelings: Feelings can be uncomfortable and confusing, especially when they conflict with each other. It’s ok to feel deep empathy for the front-line workers that are risking so much by simply showing up to work while also feeling frustrated when someone is unable to return your call immediately. Logically, you know all hospital staff can’t be at your beck and call, but feelings don’t always follow logic, and unanswered calls can be just another reminder that you can’t show up for your loved one in person.
  • Get creative: Even if you can’t visit, drop off a care package or see if the hospital accepts mail depending on how long they’re there for. Check with the hospital for any restrictions on what is or isn’t allowed, but some suggestions include cards, puzzle books, fuzzy socks, a weighted blanket, or their favorite comfortable clothing.
  • Self-Care: Being in this position can take a toll on your own mental health, and being as intentional as possible about your own self-care is important. Typical routines may feel interrupted or just “one more thing to do.” Aim to be intentional by listening to your body and what it might need. Go back to basics and make sure you’re eating, sleeping, and staying hydrated. Everything listed above all contributes to your self-care as well!

If you take nothing else away from this blog post, know this: I see you. I hear you. I’m here to hold onto hope for you when you might not see it, as others have done for me. We’re in this together, and 2020’s got nothing on us!