Most of us think of grief as the deep sorrow or pain associated with the death of a loved one. The truth is, however, that grief is the suffering associated with any loss. Right now most dentists, who have seen dramatic changes in their personal and professional lives due to the COVID-19 outbreak, are suffering.
Some common symptom that grievers experience are alterations in sleeping and eating patterns, fatigue, difficulty concentrating and rumination (continuously thinking) of the new stress in their lives that they cannot control. Dentistry is a profession loaded with perfectionists, and we may be especially prone to worrying over things we can’t control.
As we face the consequences of this new pandemic, it is important that we also face the reality of the emotional pain associated with it. Unresolved grief is linked to an increased risk of long-term mental and physical morbidity.* It is much harder, however, to measure the significant psychological effects it has on our family, co-workers and patients. Working hard to maintain a positive mental outlook in this time of confusion and uncertainty will help us, and those around us, cope.
Fortunately, there are specific tasks we can work to complete as we mourn the loss of past expectations and move forward into the future.
Task 1: Accept the reality of the loss
The COVID-19 outbreak has happened and we must change the way we practice and socialize. Becoming angry or placing blame will hamper your ability to accept this new reality.
Task 2: Process the pain
This task is the hardest and may take some time to accomplish. Work hard to avoid ruminating over lost production, and uncertain financial realities. Asking “Why did this happen?” will only lead you down a wormhole. Your patients will still be there when this is over, especially if you channel your energy into building your relationship with them through frequent email or newsletter updates. This might be a good time to update your office manual, train your team, get some deep cleaning done or tighten up your marketing plan. When your mind is tempted to worry, try to re-focus on the people and things in life you are grateful for.
Task 3: Adjust to the world as it is now
New financial and social circumstances associated with the COVID-19 pandemic may be difficult to face. Your life and practice will be very different, at least for the short term and there may be some changes necessary for the long term. Make the appropriate adjustments as needed and advance. Don’t look back!
Task 4: Move forward with your new life
This pandemic will certainly bring change. Hopefully most of the major ones will be temporary. Some of the changes that result, in the long run, may even be positive ones. Live in the present, practice gratitude and set new goals. The future of dentistry is still very bright!
Of course, proper nutrition, exercise and sleep will also help to keep you physically and emotionally healthy. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help if needed.
Pain, suffering and grief are an inevitable part of living. The COVID-19 pandemic is a shared grief experience. We share the loss of safety, loss of income and loss of socialization with our team members and patients. This shared experience may even strengthen our relationships, but only if we manage it properly. Work hard to complete these four tasks so that you can help those around you feel better too. Your family, friends, team and patients will be glad you did!
*Unresolved Grief in a National Sample of Bereaved Parents: Impaired Mental and Physical Health 4-9 Years Later,, J. Clin Oncol. 2008 Dec20; 26(36):5870-5876. Published online 2008 Nov 24.
About the author
Dr. Harms practiced dentistry as an enlisted officer in the U.S. Public Health Service, as a dental associate and for most of her career as co-owner of a private practice in Farmington, Minnesota. She served as a clinical assistant professor of operative and hospital dentistry at Loyola University Medical Center and School of Dentistry. She was the first woman president of the Minnesota Dental Association, chair of the ADA Council on Communications and member of the ADA Council on Government Affairs representing the 10th District. Dr. Harms has sent more than 164,000 books to 34 libraries in Rwanda through the Eric Harms Libraries (organized in memory of her son), through Books for Africa.
A former grief counselor and a civil mediator, she is a published author and national speaker focusing on major life events and conflict that can create shock, grief and coping struggles while practicing dentistry. Learn more at drkimberlyharms.com.