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COVID’s surprising emotional cost to our family when my husband got sick

It’s hard to believe that in April 2021, we’re still dealing with COVID. Although millions of vaccines are given every day, doctors warn us that we are not out of danger yet. And then there’s the emotional impact of COVID-19 on our mental health.

The CDC reported that cases surged in late March 2021. A new variant of the virus is more contagious, and is infecting more children and making them sick. 

As April started, Dr. Fauci urged people to remain vigilant about health measures. These include wearing masks and restricting travel and social contact even with beautiful spring weather here.

This is tough news. We’re all feeling the emotional strain of COVID. We must cope with having to cancel activities and we miss being with friends and family.

I understand the rush to get past this. And I worry that unless we get better at managing COVID stress, we may prolong the pandemic. Few people I know want to talk about the emotional impact of COVID-19, and that’s a problem.

We need to talk about it, share what we went through – and are still going through – and how we can help each other manage and support each other through this – and other hardships life brings. 

Dr. Fauci and the CDC tell us we’re still in a battle with the coronavirus.

We’re also in a battle for our mental health. 

When he pandemic hit home: The emotional impact of COVID-19

As a parent and a former therapist, I can vouch firsthand for the emotional impact of covid-19 on our family — especially our children. 

In February, my husband got COVID. It was a huge shock to all of us. As a family, we are rule-followers when it comes to COVID guidelines. How did it happen? We all felt confused, embarrassed and even ashamed about the positive test result.  

I and our three kids — 2nd, 7th and 10th graders — were required to quarantine also.  That meant we couldn’t leave our house for two weeks — fourteen days without going outside!  Along with the stress of being cooped up, we had cancel or postpone a number of important events we had planned. This was just the beginning of the stressors we experienced during these two weeks.

We got caught up in many layers of emotions around my husband’s illness. This was eye-opening to me. There are so many feelings people are dealing with in the world all of the time, and we really don’t talk about them — at least not in my social world.

The emotions my children and I were experiencing did not even come close to the isolation, fear and stress my husband was dealing with as the person with COVID.

COVID is scary. We all worried about him. It can present so differently from person to person. I felt the constant need to check on him to make sure he was okay. Fortunately we have a finished basement where he could quarantine. We set up a bed in a closed-off space where he worked, ate, and slept. Other than leaving to use the bathroom (also located in our basement), he never left that room.  

We were concerned we would get sick too. We took every precaution we knew. But in the end it was really just a waiting game. Would our last contact with him lead to some or all of us getting sick? We got tested three times and kept checking for signs the entire 14 days. 

At first, I just worried

During the first three days, I constantly worried about everyone else. What would we do if I got sick and the kids didn’t? What if just some of the kids get sick? How do I care for one with COVID and other healthy children?  Did we get someone else sick during the days before we knew my husband had COVID? What would happen if my husband got really sick and had to go to the hospital? My brain was stressed every minute.

By the middle of the week we were adjusting to the isolation. My children mainly stayed separated in their rooms. None of us wanted to risk getting the others sick, so the safest thing to do those 14 days was to keep apart.  That was two weeks of my life that I was not able to hug my husband or children. It was lonely and so hard.

The kids had school, online activities and Facetime with friends and family to help pass the time. 

I spent the days working, cleaning, cooking and delivering food to my husband and kids. And I hoped the four of us would stay healthy while he recovered. 

That’s the way our life was for a while. Each day that passed reduced our odds of getting sick and one day closer to being able to return to the world. It felt like each day got longer and longer.

I asked myself: How can we hold on? I was so grateful to friends and family that reached out to help us. My best friend called and had coffee with me everyday. It was my sanity check. 

People dropped groceries off for us at our doorstep. Our neighbors shoveled our driveway after a big snow. Friends texted and called me to keep me connected to the outside world and to give me something else to think about other than COVID. These actions meant so much. They were a lifeline. My friends and family provided much-needed practical and emotional support in the midst of all this. 

How our family dealt with disappointment and loss during COVID

All of my kids had to face some tough disappointments. But it was especially hard on my 10th-grade daughter who is very social and happened to have important events scheduled during these two weeks.

The driver’s education test that would begin her driving training had to be rescheduled. That might sound easy, but it was not during COVID. Every day past the cancelation meant another day she would have to wait for her actual license. That is a pretty big deal to a 15-year-old.  

She was scheduled to film a dance ensemble she was chosen to perform in.  The costumes were bought and all the rehearsals were done, but she was not able to join her group to make the final video.

My daughter’s best friend turned 16 during that week.  Her mother had planned a very small surprise celebration for just the two of them but when my daughter could not join, they had to cancel everything. So our COVID experience even started to affect other people’s lives. 

I wanted to give my kids something that felt normal. I had to rethink everything. Finding outlets for their stress became an important job for me.

“You’re freaking out”

Managing my own anxiety became an important job too.

The emotions I went through during our time with COVID happened on many layers. 

As a mom, I felt the heartache of watching my children have to cut themselves off from people and things that mattered to them. I saw the impact on their friends.

It was sobering to realize the drastic impact that COVID has on your family. There’s a ripple effect on all your friends and neighbors. 

I noticed that some of my friends and neighbors kept their distance, which I could understand. Along with isolation, I felt:  

  • Embarrassment
  • Shame
  • Worry about being shunned
  • Loneliness because you don’t see anyone outside the house for 14 days
  • Shocked to see how your seemingly small choices have drastic consequences

I realized how important it is to take quarantine seriously. We didn’t want to be the reason someone else had to shut their life down, or get sick or die.

We wanted it to be over long before it was time. No one was locking us in our house. We stayed there out of a moral obligation to our community. But as each day went by and we did not get sick, we started wondering why we were keeping ourselves locked in. We just had to keep reminding ourselves why we were doing it.

We need to be able to talk about the emotional impact of COVID-19

Thankfully my husband got better and the two weeks finally passed. How my children and I did not get sick is beyond me. It doesn’t make sense really.

Some time afterward, he took my youngest son to sports practice.  A friend saw him and walked up to ask questions: “Are you doing better?”  Another dad was standing nearby. My husband didn’t want to talk, feeling a similar sting of shame as I did: “I don’t want other people to know about it.” 

It’s normal to want to put it all behind us and not talk about it. But we need to be willing to talk about it — what we’ve all been through. The more we talk about COVID, perhaps people will feel less shame and embarrassment. And with less of these feelings, the more honest people will be if they think they might be sick, or have had close contact with someone that is sick. And more honesty will help slow the spread of COVID.

Tips for coping with the emotional impact of COVID-19

Here are some of the steps that helped us cope with the emotional side of COVID:

  1. Talk openly about feelings with your kids.

Share with your kids how you’re feeling about the situation. Show them how you are dealing with those feelings. Validate that giving up everything during lockdown is really hard. They need an outlet. One was just a safe place to be sad. As their mom, I needed to be present to hear their disappointment and empathize.

  1. Work with other parents.

Talk with other parents about ways your kids might spend time together. We had to stay away during quarantine but because we never got sick, we could plan virtual ways to communicate. Eventually we were able to return to our limited circle of contacts, but only after reporting to them we had pasted all of our tests and the 14 day quarantine. It is important that you talk with all your contacts and let them know how things are going so they too can make wise choices about their own family.

  1. Let people help.

Getting COVID can make you feel like an outcast. During quarantine, it felt like the friends I used to see on our street wouldn’t even drive by our house. One way to stay positive was to look at the friends who stepped up to help. We are so grateful for the people that pulled us through that week.

  1. Take time to manage your own anxiety. 

You realize you have power over so little when it comes to COVID. It was so hard to give up everything during lockdown. It’s no wonder that having control over the smallest things can take on monumental importance. You couldn’t avoid the consequences of having a loved one get sick. So darn it, your clothes better be folded right! The stress means people are more prone to get upset over things they used to take in stride.  It’s an overwhelming experience emotionally.

  1. Approach conversations with other adults without judgment

Adults need reassurance too. Speaking about illness is hard for people, because we don’t want to invite shame and judgment from others for getting sick. It takes a willingness to be vulnerable. There’s huge pressure to give up early. If we want people to stay to the end of quarantine, we need compassion to help each other through it. 

Why we need to talk openly about coping with illness

It’s important for us to be able to talk about health – including mental health – among our circle of friends and family. We need to be able to talk about our feelings as ordinary people – not just client and therapist.

Just listening and validating when someone is going through a hard time is an outlet for their stress. We need to help each other manage our fears, losses and disappointments.

Talking about the emotional impact of COVID-19 can help you learn what you can do to support someone going through a crisis or tough situation. Your openness can be a part of the solution.

We have the opportunity to comfort each other. We can’t make up for the losses, but talking can make them hurt less, and it can also deepen the bond of support between you.

We’d like to push it out of our minds and our lives, think we are done with COVID. But we are not, and neither is the world. We need to work together and support each other, so our society can beat this virus. We need to support each other so stay physically and mentally healthy. 

Skills like empathy, openness and vulnerability are ones I hope we can keep building even when the pandemic is over.

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