Are you coping with grief as a family member or friend of a bereaved person?
Usually, when we think of grief and burnout, we think of the bereaved person, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, we often forget about the impact of grief on those supporting bereaved families or friends. They also experience compassion fatigue.
In this post, I’d like to raise awareness of what grief, burnout, and compassion fatigue look like for those supporting their bereaved family or friends. And how to identify and care for yourself if you have reached the point of grief burnout.
Most of us entered the new decade, 2020, with high hopes and dreams about the future. We never expected the tsunami of sudden untimely deaths that swept across various families across the world due to the global pandemic.
What we saw were the high unimaginable death rates of loved ones. This also meant unprecedented demand on the support network of family and friends who for the most part have had to put aside their grief to provide the needed comfort and support
I remember a week during the peak of my grief where I had heard four of my friends had lost a loved one.
It felt like they were constantly ‘grief firefighting.’
Like before, as they settled into comforting and consoling a bereaved family or friend; they start all over again within a brief space of time.
This got me thinking, and I wondered how the support network of bereaved family and friends were genuinely coping with their grief? How were they handling the rapidly changing rollercoaster of emotions they faced? What types of emotions were they experiencing, and how were they recharging?
My curiosity got the best of me; I asked a few of our family and friends these questions that were in my heart. My family and friends are grieving too, and they need to be cared for as well.
I asked them, “so how are you really feeling and coping?”, “Which emotions are dominant and constant?”,” How are you managing to be available for Xx and me during this challenging time?”, “How are you taking care of yourself?”
I thought long and hard about my various conversations and concluded that supporting a bereaved family or friend can be intense. It is emotionally, physically, and socially demanding.
Those supporting a bereaved family or friend often put their grief aside, pressure themselves to show up and be available to support.
They abandon their feelings, doubts, thoughts and, mostly, appear stoic so they can serve the person most affected by the loss of a loved one.
I’m glad I had this conversation with family and friends because it made us talk and be vulnerable. It moved the spotlight away from me to them and helped us learn how to support each other better.
My conversation with my family and friends uncovered multiple layers that we rarely think about; areas where they need support, among others. I will share the other areas in another post. This post will focus on grief, burnout and compassion fatigue.
Two dominant themes that stood out as we explored grief and burnout. We discovered that some had minor signs of grief burnout, and others were at the risk of burnout. We agreed on how they were also to take care of themselves.
I imagine you are wondering, “what are the signs that you’re reaching your burnout point?”
Burnout, by its definition, is an emotional, mental, and sometimes physical exhaustion caused by repeated or prolonged stressful events.
The process of burnout usually involves a gradual breakdown of connections with significant roles and relationships caused by excessive and prolonged stress, as well as physical, mental, and emotional strain.
The result is lethargy, depression, cynicism and confusion, and the feeling of helplessness that there is nothing else to offer.
With the opening of another decade, 2020 surprised everyone, as it brought multiple deaths in quick succession.
Sadly, for many people, we received breaking news about losing another loved one just as we recently came out of shock following the loss of a loved one.
I found the news about another loved one’s death triggering for me. I still do. Each news set me back to the start of my journey. I felt overwhelmed by the suffering that others have to go through.
The key questions I kept asking myself were, should I feel like this? Should I pretend I didn’t hear about the news?
Each time I heard or read about another death of a loved one, I caught myself often saying with a heavy sigh, “it is well.”
I think now I know why people say that. I think most people say it to express their despair and exhaustion.
What I observed over time was that I put a wall up for these types of news. I would say “it is well”, reflected on the person for a moment and then carried on.
At first, I thought I was doing well in the way I was handling this news. I noticed I gradually felt emotionally numbed or mentally distant.
I later discovered that I was suppressing my emotions and becoming numb to the suffering of others who had just begun their grief journey.
One sleepless night earlier this year, I was browsing the internet and threw my phone excitedly to the other side of the bed. I was ecstatic because I could put a name, a label on what I was feeling.
This Comforted me. Awareness is always the first step in the right direction. Once you’re aware, you can take the step to help cope and overcome it.
It turns out that what my friends described and what I was also feeling has a name called compassion fatigue. Huh?
I want to share what compassion fatigue is, how you can identify it, and how to cope if you experience compassion fatigue.
What is compassion fatigue?
You may feel compassion fatigue when caring for your friend or family member after a bereavement of some sort. As we have experienced in 2020 and 2021, you hear of many other losses of loved ones in multiple succession.
You can become fatigued. When you reflect on the additional demand of your time, energy, emotions and resources that need to be shared with your newly bereaved loved one.
People who experience compassion fatigue feel numb to the pain of others. They are likely to feel less able to express empathy for them, reduce their ability to empathise, or lose confidence in their abilities to help.
These signs of compassion fatigue are common:
- Physical or emotional exhaustion (or both)
- Reduced feelings of sympathy or empathy
- Dreading taking care of someone and feeling guilty about it
- Feeling irritable, angry, or anxious
- Trouble sleeping
- Isolating yourself
- Feeling disconnected
- Feeling burdened by the suffering of others
- Bottling up your emotions
- Increased nightmares
- Feelings of hopelessness or powerlessness
- Poor self-care
When you overuse your compassion without taking time to recharge regularly, you lose your ability to feel and care for others which wear out.
I thought to raise this awareness because it’s the first step towards recovering from compassion fatigue.
Grief burnout and compassion fatigue affect not only the quality of care we can give to those bereaved. It also affects our quality of life.
If our quality of life is low, we won’t provide proper support to our bereaved family or friends.
Helping or wanting to help others who are bereaved can cause one to become stressed. If we do not manage compassion fatigue, it will significantly affect our health and wellbeing.
By becoming aware of and practicing healthy self-care, those experiencing compassion fatigue can well understand the complexities of emotions they have been distracted from and, most likely, suppressing.
I suppose the next question on your mind is now that I am aware of compassion fatigue. What are some ways to cope with grief, burnout, and compassion fatigue?
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Here are some ways to cope with compassion fatigue:
Become aware of any changes in your compassion fatigue level
Because we are different, it also suggests that our habitat’s compassion levels will be different. It’s essential to know the capacity of our compassion tank and be aware of what the various levels feel like. We each have our capacity and gauge.
Accept, Express and Exchange information and feelings.
Once you’re aware of your compassion fatigue level or grief burnout, it can be tempting to fight it or even suppress it. Grief not expressed will make us not engaged, warm, and appear less caring.
Remaining stoic and bottling in your feelings will increase your compassion fatigue level. The antidote is investing in yourself by exchanging information and feelings in a safe space with people who can validate you.
Don’t forget to take care of yourself.
Taking care of yourself will help you stay mentally and physically healthy as well as prevent compassion fatigue. The importance of self-care can’t be overstated. Be sure to know your personal boundaries, i.e. when your tank is running low.
You may think taking time for yourself is selfish. Still, suppose you’re run-down, overwhelmed, and have a short temper. In that case, those qualities will undoubtedly show when you care for a grieving family or friend.
Below are additional recommended readings that highlight some healthy coping strategies to help you cope with compassion fatigue.
Balanced Wheel’s Bereavement support groups support anyone who has lost a parent, spouse/partner, child, grandparent, grandchild, sibling/relative, or friend.
Grieving is a highly personal experience. Losing a loved one is a painful experience. Support is available if you have lost someone close to you. Support is available from Balanced Wheel.
You can eventually cope with your loss by getting the proper support. Sharing your experience of grief with others who are experiencing similar things can be more helpful than trying to cope alone.
So, I invite you to join our peer-to-peer bereavement support group.
Are you grieving the loss of someone you loved and would like to join our support group? We will start with two bereavement support groups in September. Would you please complete this registration form for any of the next two bereavement support groups?
I’d love to share your coping with grief story too.
I intend to expand the blog and resources on the website to include stories of other people who have lost a loved one, not limited to losing a spouse. I’d love to hear about how you handled grief. Would you please let me know if you would like to share your story?
I am also open to having anyone anonymised if that’s your preferred option. Complete the contact us form with the text “I would like to share my story.”