Being the spouse of a healthcare worker can be tough. They have odd schedules, are often exposed to secondary trauma at work, and when things like the COVID-19 pandemic occur – they are going straight to the front lines to take care of those patients. Not only is there the general fear from the public to deal with, but when you go into the storm every day at work, it can bring the fear to an entirely new level.
Together with my husband, a counseling intern at the Rock Counseling Group in Champaign, Illinois, we discussed some tips in supporting healthcare workers throughout this time.
While most of my content is written directly to nurses, this is written directly to the loved ones of nurses.
If you’d like to view our video on this instead of reading the post, simply click below.
First, address their practical needs
Make sure to give your loved one physical space when they get home. They need to have the time and ability to immediately change clothes and shower. This many mean changing your routine and establishing a “coming home protocol”. These routines/protocols can be really helpful if you have kids who typically want to jump on mom or dad as soon as they get home.
It’s essential that the healthcare worker can have that time to decontaminate themselves safely and that they can rest the reassurance knowing that time is protected. It is comforting and empowering if you, as their loved one, are prioritizing them getting clean and calming down after a shift and they don’t feel they have to fight for that time or justify why they need it.
When they come home, their responsibility and priority is simply to get clean; that’s it. No meal prep, no cleaning of the house, no fixing things, folding laundry, taking the dogs out – simply showering and changing clothes.
It may also be wise to ensure that meals are ready for them when they arrive home, rather than expecting them to come home and prepare a meal. Also consider if you’re having that loved one pick up food for the family on the way home. It might not be the best idea when they’re just getting off a shift and haven’t showered yet.
Sample “Coming Home Protocol”
- Dad texts mom when he’s leaving the unit
- When he pulls into the garage, the kids go to the door and wave to him
- They go and help dinner on the table, pick out the books dad typically reads to them, or whatever task is appropriate
- Dad immediately showers, places dirty scrubs into the laundry
- Dad takes a few minutes after the shower to decompress mentally
- Dad is mentally ready to engage and eat dinner together with family
- Dad and kids do dishes together after dinner
Hold these expectations loosely, as things may change. Shifts may get cut short or go long; communication is key. Make sure you give one another grace and try your best not to take things personally when things don’t go as planned – especially when that’s out of your control.
Next, address their emotional needs
When things are situated when you get home practically, it enables you to help focus the healthcare provider on transitioning their brain to be home to be mentally present with you. Just like athletes need time to decompress after a game, so do healthcare workers after a shift.
It would be advantageous to ask your healthcare provider loved one how they prefer to decompress after a shift.
- Do they need some space?
- Do they want to talk – but don’t want to talk about work/the hospital
- Do they want to fully debrief you on their day at work?
- Do they need some physical space and need to be alone?
- Do they like to be held or want physical closeness after a shift?
It’s not about saying the perfect thing; it’s about showing up for them, being there and being present. That’s it – don’t stress over finding some eloquently worded perfect comforting speech. Often, your non-judgmental and caring presence is enough.
(Truly, silently sitting next to one another on the couch with a reassuring hand on their back can speak volumes. You’re there, you care, you don’t have an agenda – merely to just be there together.)
Also, never underestimate the power of small encouragement throughout the day or night while they’re working. Mid-shift texts, memes, GIFs, photos of the dogs/kids/cats/etc. Make such a difference in morale throughout a 12,13, or even 14+ hour shift. When you’re working in such a confined area for so long, you can easily forget the outside world exists. Remind them of your normal life at home and it brings that joy to the forefront of their mind. It can bring so much comfort, especially when it’s a tough shift.
(Picture your loved one as a nurse, physician, respiratory therapist, etc. in an ICU, taking care of a patient who is slowly dying all day… who finally gets a break after 7 hours to sit in the break room for 20 minutes. They pick up their phone and see three photos of their kids sloppily eating their lunch, a video of their dog barking a leaf, and the latest Tiger King meme. Again, I can’t tell you how deeply comforting these things are when you’re in the midst of caring for people going through their worst nightmare. Seriously. Send the Tiger King meme. Just do it.)
Remember, when your loved one comes home they may still be mentally processing what they’ve seen and experienced. If they’re not immediately affectionate or want to engage in meaningful conversation, try not to take it personally.
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Work right now is probably very stressful and they’ve most likely gone 12+ hours hearing constant beeps, buzzes, and alarms. They also may have had a mask covering their face for the entire time. After just 5 minutes it feels suffocating – imagine not being able to take it off for hours. Therefore, I encourage you to find out how they feel best supported and if they need some space, provide that with joy. It’s a service to someone you love deeply to respect their mental and emotional needs by putting that before your own at that time, and allowing space.
Also, nurses and other healthcare providers tend to be who others look to be strong during uncertain times like these. They’re often asked many questions from a lot of different people in their lives, and that quickly gets mentally exhausting – fast. They go from educating patients and their loved ones for hours on end at work, only to have 7 text messages and 4 new Facebook messages asking, “Did you see what they said today? What do you think of it? Do you have a lot of patients at the hospital? How bad is it? I heard you’re running out of masks. What’s it like?” It can feel like you never get a break. Allow home to be a calm, quiet, and safe space for your loved one to get away from all of that. Support without explanation of an update or education or information goes so far.
Validate their concerns and fears, affirm their work and effort, and simply be present without expectation. There’s a lot of advice to go around these days, with so many differing opinions… never underestimate the power of simply validating someone’s experience without trying to problem-solve. Again, your presence is often enough.
Examples of ways to express this:
- “This is really hard.”
- “I’m so proud of you.”
- “Hey. I like you. I like that nurse thing you do. You’re so good at it and it makes us so proud.”
- “I know you have to have your work face on and be brave there and for the kids, but you don’t have to do that with me. I’m safe. I’m here. I know this is scary.”
- “I know this is really tough and frustrating. I’m here.”
I cannot express to you enough how important it is to just know someone is on your side, support you, and doesn’t expect something from you in order to get it.
Other ways to promote and encourage emotional restoration include breathing techniques, prayer, meditation, and journaling. These can have powerful therapeutic effects and if your loved one feels supported in doing these things together, consider offering that opportunity to bond.
Promoting social and recreational needs
In this time of constant change, having a sense of normalcy can be greatly comforting. Consider some fun things you would do together and see if you can incorporate those in your time together. Don’t just hope they’ll suggest it. That whole “If they wanted to do something like that they just need to ask,” justification just puts the ball in their court to facilitate everything. Bear that mental burden and take that responsibility to facilitate something enjoyable for you both to do together – even if it’s something simple.
I like to call this kickin’ it with purpose.
What that communicates to someone: I like you and I love you. I care about you. I want to do fun things with you. You are important to me. You are 100% worth putting effort forth for, and I will do that with joy.
Have a game night, make a new recipe, start a movie or TV series (we’re going through the Marvel movies and Community right now!), schedule a daily walk together, connect with friends on apps like HouseParty and play games together or catch up.
Exercise is also hugely beneficial physically and mentally/emotionally as well. I talk about the physiological benefits of it in another COVID post, and you can find that here. And you don’t have to exercise together, but by creating time for one another to get it done you can demonstrate that their health is a priority to you too.
Think of it like you each have your own self-care plan, and if you can help one another stay accountable in staying on track – you enable one another to be more successful.
Communication and teamwork
Naturally, for any of this to work you’ve got to communicate with one another. Even with the best communicators, there are missteps and misunderstandings. Give one another grace, be quick to forgive and assume the best intentions in one another.
This can look like:
- “I thought you were going to be home earlier. I’m a bit frustrated because I spent all that time making dinner for you… not with you, just with the unpredictability of your job. I just need a sec to collect myself. I don’t want to say anything I don’t mean out of misplaced anger right now.”
- “I’m not in the best headspace for this conversation. Can I have a sec to myself before we talk about it?”
- Having a calendar with your work schedule on it + who is going to be responsible for meals
- Making the commitment to text / notify your loved one as soon as you’re aware that the agreed upon plan has to change and apologizing/taking ownership if you forget
- “I’m sorry, I know I’ve been really short with you. I didn’t mean to take a jab at you about that. I think I’m just really sad and frustrated right now because I feel like I haven’t seen you in a while.”
- “I feel like we need to chat about who is doing which chores around the house with this new work schedule. I feel like with you so focused on work, I’m left to keep the house and family running by myself and it’s simply too much for me to physically do and too much of a mental and emotional burden. Is there a way we can divide things up so it works for us both?”
- “You’re right. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
- “That was a really unkind thing to say to me. What’s going on?”
A good way to think about this is that you both are on the same team and arguments and problems that come up are on the opposite team / the other side of the net. Stay together, working towards a common goal rather than fighting against one another. Attack the problem – not one another.
You can better support others and your loved ones when you are caring for yourself so make sure you take care of yourself as well.
Self awareness to know what each of you need is step one, the next step is communicating that effectively and making sure to gauge your expectations accordingly. Inevitably there will be missteps and miscommunications. Make sure you give one another grace as you navigate those together.