• Jody Kussin

#59 Family Matters - "I Don't Know"

In These Times by Dr. Jody Kussin May 12, 2020

There are three words we are hearing more and more – and I don’t mean “I love you” or “ARE YOU KIDDIN?”

I had a long catch up chat with a very dear friend. She is a medical doctor in a large teaching hospital in the East Coast. She said last week 70% of every bed in their place was for an individual with COVID-19. As an academic chair as well as a physician, she is in charge of lots of things – providing direct care and services to patients, training and supporting newer docs, organizing and coordinating protocols and procedures with the hospital and the Center for Disease Control, and balancing administrative responsibilities with maintaining calm, composure and compassion while serving as a role model to colleagues and staff.

It was her line, really.

She said, “I said I DON’T KNOW more yesterday than in my career to date.”

Earlier in the week I heard the same thing from a father of three. “The kids keep asking me “Why?” and “When will this be over?” and “How do we make sure we are safe if we go outside?” and I keep saying, “I DON’T KNOW.”

Health care providers and parents alike are interventionists. We want to fix things and offer solutions as problems are presented. And many times, we can. A parent can clean a skinned knee, put a band aid on it, kiss it and literally ‘make it better.’ A nurse can read a thermometer, diagnose a fever, and treat it.

However, in these times, many times a day, none of us can offer answers to what may seem like basic questions.

“When can I visit my grandmother in the hospital?” “Why is this happening?” “Is it okay now to go outside? Why was it not okay last week to hike but this week it is?”

We are in ‘opposite’ world – where the simpler questions are the harder to answer.

And that is a challenge for us all. We have moved into “compassion fatigue” versus “compassion satisfaction.” This puts us all at high risk for burn out (both as health care workers and as parents) and it also puts us at risk for longer term mental health issues.

And, there is actually no solution in sight. Or as Jackson Browne sings in “Before the Deluge:”

And when the sand was gone, and the time arrived in the naked dawn only a few survived And in attempts to understand a thing so simple and so huge believed that they were meant to live after the deluge

Let the music keep our spirits high, let the buildings keep our children dry Let creation reveal its secrets by and by, by and by When the light that's lost within us reaches the sky

What to say when we don’t know. What to believe in when we don’t know?

For starters – believe that we are meant to live after the deluge. History is on our side. In these hard times, hold onto the fact that we are survivors, and this will ultimately pass.

In addition, when we don’t know, we can (and do) say “I don’t know.”

And then add a few other tag lines while remaining calm and reassuring. We can do this by being available and accessible, physically and emotionally. My friend the doc says she is making sure to be highly visible, even when she is swamped with saving lives and juggling priorities. Same is true for parents.

She also delivers messages with empathy,

“I don’t know but I will look into it and see what I can find out. I know this is hard/frustrating/nerve wracking/challenging/impossible/heart breaking/worrisome. Let’s make our best decision given the limited information we have.”

We can also be conscientious to not infuse our responses with our own sense of inadequacy or anger. It’s not all that helpful to tell our kids, “I don’t know and if only these horrible ______________ fill in the blank (politicians, news reporters, teachers) would get their acts together we could make some progress.”

And of course, as we are already doing, we can share the information we DO know:

“I don’t know the answer to that question. But I DO know that we are all doing our best to keep healthy, wash our hands, socially distance, and be kind to one another.”

At the end of the day, however, it is exhausting to not know. So, we need to remember to, as they say, fill up our own wells. They are running dangerously low to empty.

Remember your right and need to vent – to a friend, colleague, clergy person, therapist – (outside the hearing range of your child/mother/patient) and that it’s pertinent to actually SCHEDULE this into your calendar. Consider at minimum 30 minutes per day with another adult in addition to an hour long a few times a week.

Remember your right and need to establish some sort of boundaries and to avoid the toxic people in your life in these times, as much as possible.

Remember your right and need to exercise and hydrate and eat healthy and sleep.

Remember your right and need to have privacy and leisure time, which is harder than we’d think, in these times.

And remember your right and need to use some positive self-talk – talk yourself up, out loud – “I can get through this. I am good at what I do. I am needed and necessary, but I am not in control of the whole world. I can focus on today and not on the rest of the week/month/year. I can and will honor ME and MY needs, starting NOW.”

While there is a ton of ‘I don’t know’ going around, we also have lots we do know. So, take good care of you and take some deep breaths and whenever possible, please take a break. You deserve it, need it, and are entitled to it.

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