Hello Compassion Fatigue, My Old Friend
Sometimes life kicks your tush.
This spring was one of those time for me. Over the course of just a few weeks one of my cats died suddenly and one of my dogs died from renal failure. I trust you know how awful that felt. How awful it still feels. Losing our pets is just impossibly hard.
In between losses, I managed to break my nose in a freak snow shoveling accident while pet sitting during a late-season blizzard. Did you guys know that you can't really blow your nose when it's broken? Crying with a busted schnoz is the worst. If I could, I'd leave a really bad review on Yelp about it to stop other people from going there.
The good news is that I'm feeling more like myself these days - my nose is healed and my heart is less heavy as it keeps adjusting to our different, smaller family. I know I'm okay now because bigger chunks of the day feel pretty ordinary again. Boring even. And that feels so good after months of being upside down. I know many of you have been and will be in a similar, unsettled space, so I thought I'd share a few things that may be of use:
1. Grief can open the door to compassion fatigue. When we're experiencing a loss or major stressor in our personal lives, it's like sending a VIP invitation to compassion fatigue (CF) to come join the party. Over the past two months, I felt the whispers of CF for the first time in many years. Knowing what I know about CF doesn't stop it from touching me too. But what I know does help me to recognize my symptoms of CF early on and stay aware of what I'm experiencing. This gave me the chance to double down and walk the walk. In other words, I had to practice everything I teach.
2. During times of excessive personal stress, increased self-care and boundaries are essential. When we're experiencing distress in our personal lives, we need to commit to and accelerate our self-care. Temporarily try to redirect more of your resources back towards yourself. I knew I had to conserve my very limited energy so I could address my own increased needs and the needs of the students in the CF classes I was teaching this winter.
To do that, I drastically cut back on everything non-essential. That meant putting my volunteer work on hold for two months, socializing much less (while still maintaining supportive connections), not writing blogs or newsletters, lowering the bar on my school work this semester, and not taking on new work projects. In other words: I dropped some serious "NO" for two months straight, even if that meant disappointing some people. Boundaries are everything.
3. Create and lean on rituals and practices that allow you to be with and move through the pain. We all respond to different approaches. I relied on a whole bunch of things, including loving-kindness meditation and swimming in pints of vegan ice cream (c'mon, I'm human), But here's one thing that really helped me to be with and process my feelings:
My Personal Pet Remembrance Journal by Enid Traisman, MSW. Enid is a grief counselor who runs pet loss support groups at DoveLewis Animal Hospital. I bought two of these journals and every Sunday (or whenever I needed it), I spent a little time answering Enid's insightful prompts. Writing helped me to process what I was experiencing in a healthy way and the journals are now a beautiful record of my pets' lives.
There are decades of research on the benefits of writing as a tool to increase physical and mental health. I know, because I just finished writing my graduate capstone on the subject of expressive writing, mindfulness, and resilience for animal care professionals. I didn't expect to be my own research subject this semester, but that's exactly what happened. Writing became my anchor in the storm.
I highly recommend this journal and if you have clients that are grieving, be sure to share this resource with them. Side note: I interviewed Enid a few years ago about her work with animal care professionals and self-care. She's a gem.
Today, as I write this, I'm feeling much better. Broken open, but restored. And if you're reading this and you're grieving too, know that I'm sending you the biggest, warmest hug my friend. You can do this.
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