In the more than 25 years I have been a nurse, I have never witnessed the emotional, spiritual, and physical toll that was heralded by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The physical work was formidable, the emotional burden was heavy, and the spiritual distress was implacable. My dear friends and colleagues on the front lines were working on the fumes of compassion and duty while grieving for the immense loss of lives of their own relatives, colleagues, and patients in increasing numbers — the likes of which most of us had never seen. It brings to question, who cares for the caregiver in these poignant times so they can be a source of comfort for others? 

As we consider the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, we recognize that health, faith, relationships, and the economy have impacted everyone directly or indirectly. It seems no one escaped unscathed. As a trauma nurse and nursing progressor, I have seen how thoughtful spiritual care can be a vital tool to ease the impact on both patients and health care providers. 

Traditionally, spiritual care forms the basis of compassionate holistic care and serves as a coping mechanism. Working in a Catholic hospital where the presence of clergy was commonplace and a necessity for many patients and staff alike, I found the need for interfaith support was vast but lacking, largely due to the constraints presented by COVID-19. Healthcare chaplains couldn’t reach many patients directly because they were hampered and impeded by the enforcement of infection control strategies that isolated patients. The task of providing physiologic, emotional, and spiritual care for patients and each other was deferred to the healthcare worker.   

Even us healthcare workers who are knowledgeable about religion and religious diversity felt unprepared to embrace this new role and felt spiritually inept.  When faced with increasing positive cases and rising mortality rates, we saw that patients and healthcare workers alike needed the same emotional and spiritual support. While addressing spiritual care for patients is important, the need to ensure the healthcare worker’s capacity to do so is imperative.   

As the cases rose, healthcare workers were exhausted, overwhelmed, and felt powerless.  The nurses in particular faced emotional and moral distress related to their own vulnerability, the protection of their immediate families, and death in increasing numbers.   

Studies clearly show there was an increased prevalence of anxiety and depression among healthcare workers providing direct care to patients with COVID-19 during the pandemic. The situation was dire, and we were not equipped to handle a challenge of this magnitude with so much uncertainty. This suggests healthcare workers also have a need for effective coping strategies.  Faith and religion have been a source of refuge during difficult times.  In the summer of 2020 during the peak of the crisis, a Pew Research Center survey found that three in 10 Americans surveyed reported an increase in their faith as a direct result of the pandemic. 

As we reflect on the lessons learned from the effects of the pandemic, and seek to identify the long-term consequences hereafter, there should be a focus on proactively preparing healthcare workers to better fill these supportive roles and to strengthen their resilience when faced with adversities of this magnitude. Studies suggest religious counseling and therapy can be possible effective strategies to support and prepare healthcare workers to face similar situations in the future.   

As a nurse educator, I feel there is more I can do in preparing nurses, should the need rise in the future. It is important that our caregivers are interfaith literate and tolerant, so we are mindful and inclusive in providing holistic care. Prudent adjustments to curriculums in health-related fields might also be needed to bolster religious diversity, inclusion, and tolerance to develop provider competence in initiating and providing compassionate spiritual care for their patients and each other.