COVID-19's essential caregivers continue to cope with lingering trauma

Rhonda Firman's father lived in Richmond Terrace in Amherstburg. She was his essential caregiver and is still finding ways to cope with the grief she experienced during those early months of COVID-19. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC - image credit)
Rhonda Firman's father lived in Richmond Terrace in Amherstburg. She was his essential caregiver and is still finding ways to cope with the grief she experienced during those early months of COVID-19. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC - image credit)

This time of year is difficult for Rhonda Firman.

Even though Dec. 26 marks two years since her dad's death, the months before his funeral still replay in her mind — especially during the holidays.

Underweight, distressed and lonely — it's not the way Firman wants to remember her once comedic and vibrant father. But she said it's hard to shake how months locked down at a long-term care home impacted him.

"I just felt bad that he was stuck in there," Firman said through tears. Her visits to the home were severely restricted.

During the early days of the pandemic, long-term care homes were COVID-19's primary target.

The government enforced strict rules to keep the disease out, but it came at the cost of people dying alone, essential caregivers being barred visits and neglect of residents due to short-staffing.

It's going on three years since COVID-19 first landed in Windsor-Essex, people who cared for elderly and vulnerable loved ones are still trying to cope with what they experienced, including feelings of abandonment and guilt.

Submitted by Rhonda Firman
Submitted by Rhonda Firman

It's a time Firman remembers so vividly that it still brings her to tears and also makes her tense with anger.

"I can't explain it to anybody, they don't get it. They don't — unless you've lived it," she said.

"It was every day just wondering if your dad is dead or alive — is he eating, drinking, sleeping OK? Are they leaving him in a dark room?"

John Firman, known to those closest to him as Jack, suffered from vascular dementia and moved in to Richmond Terrace long-term care home in Amherstburg at the start of 2019.

For months, Richmond Terrace managed to stay COVID-free. The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) reports that the home's first outbreak was in December 2020 that saw two cases among staff members.

At the time, CBC News reported that while the home was keeping residents disease-free, it was doing so by occasionally go above and beyond the rules that were recommended by the government. This led to complaints and inspections by the Ontario government.

Jennifer La Grassa/CBC
Jennifer La Grassa/CBC

Firman went from visiting her father twice a day to not all all when COVID-19 locked down all long-term care homes in March 2020. She didn't see him in-person until June and even then, she said she was about 20 feet away separated by a fence and mask.

At the time, she said she remembers noticing how skinny he had become and seeing a cancer spot that had grown on his head.

"I felt like I could have done more, I dunno, I should have fought harder for him," she said, describing the guilt that continues to plague her. Though she says she's tried to go to therapy, she doesn't feel like it's done much help.

'A lot of trauma'

The pain Firman continues to experience is all too familiar for Gisele Harrison — an essential caregiver who braved COVID-19 in one of Windsor-Essex's hardest hit homes.

It was around this time two years ago that she stepped into a COVID-19 hotspot to care for her mom, Aline Harrison. Aline, who had Alzheimer's Disease, had been living at the Village at St. Clair long-term care home since 2015.

Submitted by Gisele Harrison
Submitted by Gisele Harrison

By December 2020, the home had entered its third and worst COVID-19 outbreak. According to notes from the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU), the Village at St. Clair logged 320 COVID-19 cases among staff and residents.

Harrison was one of 25 people chosen to come into the home during that time as an essential caregiver.

"It was a horrible experience," she said.

"I've never been to war ... I hope I'm not insulting anyone who has been to war, but it kind of felt like I was in a mass unit where people were dying all the time and there was chaos happening throughout and rules changing throughout."

WATCH: Harrison describes the images that she can't erase 

According to reports from WECHU, the disease wreaked havoc in the home for 46 days — it got so severe that Hotel Dieu Grace Healthcare staff and then-CEO Janice Kaffer stepped in to take control of the home's operations.

By the time the outbreak was over, 63 people had died.

Harrison was surrounded by loss and grief, which was then compounded by the moments of fear and "utter chaos" -- these emotions continue to take up space in her body and mind today.

"There was 8 by 10 pictures of all the people who had died on the walls, lining the walls. There was furniture piled to the ceiling of people who had died, those memories will stay in my head, I hope not forever, but they're still pretty vivid," she said as she broke into tears.

Harrison's mom died in June this year at 98 years old, it wasn't from COVID-19.

Even though Harrison is a trauma therapist, none of this has been easier for her to cope with. She's been going to therapy to process her experience and said she's realized just how much she has spent the last two years disassociating from what she was living through.

"I can only describe it as a lot of trauma that happened in real time and ... I just went on automatic. I just didn't feel my own feelings or my own fear," she said.

"I know people were calling me a hero ... I didn't feel like a hero at all, I didn't really feel like I had a choice except to take care of my mom which was a no-brainer for me but it was. I don't regret doing it on some level because I wanted to be there for her, but I really regret doing it because of my own mental health and the ... price I've paid since then."

'No timeline on grief:' therapist

Dana St Jean, a grief and bereavement counsellor, at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Windsor-Essex Branch said it's common that people are still processing emotions from the early days of COVID-19.

"There's no timeline on grief," she said.

"If we are able to love someone, then we are going to grieve that person and grieving doesn't just stop after a year or two years."

In 2020, St Jean became a therapist dedicated to COVID-19 and supported people through a very fearful and intense time in their lives. For caregivers she said there was significant worry, anxiety and a depressed mood.

"That brought up a lot of strain and stress," she said, noting that because only one caregiver could go into homes, that person was likely more prone to burnout and compassion fatigue.

St Jean said it's important people acknowledge the feelings they are having in order to process grief.

She said there is programming at the CMHA that people can access to help them cope with these emotions. This includes the CMHA's bereavement seminars, which are free to any adults in Windsor-Essex.

If you or someone you know is struggling, here's where to get help:

This guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health outlines how to talk about suicide with someone you're worried about.