Updated: Mar 19, 2018
If you witness the suffering of others on a daily basis, it will affect you. The negative effects are often called "compassion fatigue," "secondary trauma," or "trauma exposure response." As a helping professional or caregiver, it is important to safeguard your emotional well-being before it impacts your life in bigger ways.
The groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy & Their Own Families, resulted from a series of seminars led by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. (Read my review of the book here.) The seminars started as small groups of practitioners and students who would listen to and ask questions of dying patients in a hospital. It grew to be attended by upwards of 50 students from different disciplines. The patients would either be in a room with two-way glass (so the class could see them but they could not see the class) or the patients would choose to be directly in front of the class for the conversation. Each conversation was different, but started with learning about the patient from their own perspective. The interviewers did not look at the patient’s chart before the meeting. After the conversation with the patient, the students would discuss their reactions.
Just as it is important for people who are dying to work through the stages of grief and identify the things that may be holding them back from acceptance, it is equally important for helping professionals to do the same. This is not limited to work with terminally ill patients. Having a space to be able to talk about the daily challenges of caring for others in any capacity is crucial for your well-being. It turns out that many of the students in Kübler-Ross's seminars were there to gain insight into losses in their own lives. It is difficult to see anyone suffering and that creates its own manifestation of grief. If you witness the suffering of others on a daily basis, it will affect you. As helping professionals it can be confusing to know where our clients’ pain ends and our own pain begins, especially if we do not confront it directly.
#PayAttention in your own life for signs of compassion fatigue:
Poor self care
Apathy, sadness, inability to feel pleasure
Excessive complaining or blaming
Chronic physical ailments
Feeling hopeless and helpless
Inability to empathize, numbing
Fear, guilt, anger, cynicism
Sense of persecution
Inability to listen, avoidance
Inability to embrace complexity
Learn more at compassionfatigue.org or read Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others (Author Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky uses the term "trauma exposure response" in lieu of compassion fatigue).
Does your organization have a space and time dedicated to helping you process the challenging work you do? If not, is there a way you can get something started?
Here is an article about support groups for oncology professionals.
If your organization does have something like this in place, please share what is working!
Please share, ask questions, leave comments, suggest topics, and tell stories! I want to hear about your moments of magic, miracles, and synchronicity.
Dare to be immortal.
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