Isn't it ironic? The week of Mother's day finds me comforting a friend who's elderly Mom died, consoling a mother whose young daughter passed away and soothing a close relation with a seriously ill Mom. My combined feeling of empathy and compassion for all of their sadness and grief is a bit overwhelming. I think I am suffering from a mild bout of compassion fatigue.
Have you ever heard of compassion fatigue? When I heard a group of social workers talking about this condition I was fascinated by the phrase alone. Most often it is used in discussions regarding caregivers--such as nurses and counselors--particularly those that work with populations who experience traumatic events or work in highly stressful environments. But what about the mothers out there who are compassionate every day? How do we--as caregivers--avoid this fatigue and remain emotionally healthy as we stay present to our family's needs?
Compassion fatigue is thought to be the result of dealing with too much bad news or having prolonged time periods confronting difficult issues such as terminal illness, anger or death. Charles Figley, PhD, scholar and author writes in 2002:
"Compassion fatigue is a phenomenon that occurs when a caregiver feels overwhelmed by repeated empathic engagement with distressed clients."
The concern is that when a person experiences compassion fatigue, their ability to function appropriately becomes compromised.
For the professional, the most common coping strategy recommendations include setting boundaries, introducing humor and consulting with colleagues. But for the compassionate mothers, sisters and friends out there--what do we do?
In response to an overload of empathy, I try to remember the long list of things to be grateful for and focus on the graceful response of knowing that even the greatest suffering does pass. Connecting to my own kindness and the happiness felt when one recognizes this inclination within one's self is helpful. It is an action that does take effort, mindfulness and whole-hearted practice. It is not uncommon for those real life human beings, like us, to react impatiently, annoyed, disappointed or grieved by events that are troubling and unpleasant. The mothers who are listening lovingly and openly should be admired and appreciated.
Another coping mechanism and strategy to avoid compassion fatigue may be to face the very human pain of loss, fear of death, and sadness with an open heart and clear awareness. Sometimes jumping into the situation completely--crying, mourning and authentically feeling the pain allows us to move through the moment and recover from the experience more fully.
Trying to stay detached from the pain and suffering of others carries a much greater burden. Being openly compassionate to the authentic experiences of pain and fear, sadness and suffering transcends the compassion fatigue that we most want to avoid.
This Mother's day practice friendliness, compassion and appreciation for all those Moms that are holding the emotional strength for others every day.