A few years ago at the NAGC Symposium, I presented on the topic of self-care and burn-out prevention and since then have had a few followers on my facebook/twitter periodically let me know how they are still taking good care of themselves and their children's grief support staff. In fact, Vicki Costan Braun (ED of Oak Tree Corner, Dayton, OH) nicknamed me "self-care guru Priestess" --a title I cherish and defend nearly as fiercely as my Yelp.com's Duchess title for frequent visits to my pedicurist for polka-dot polish. Yes, people, I practice what I preach.
Rightly so, I gave Vicki an "A+" for recently taking 19 days off work. An additional "A" grade was aptly awarded to Debbie Meyer (ED of Erin's House, Fort Wayne, IN) for incorporating self-care, team-building rituals for her staff such as an outing to local www.wineandcanvas.com. But she didn't need my grade. Her staff (who painted and decorated her office as a welcome-home gift) proved my point that when you take good care of your staff, they become more dedicated and give back to you.
When we live in a space of scarcity - money and time being finite - it seems to bring us to our knees. We find that there is never enough time or money. But, when one understands the vicarious trauma we all are exposed to via working with grief and trauma, the scarcity view leads to burn-out and practitioner decay. Loss of volunteers and dedicated staff or board members is costly. When we do not nurture ourselves, we can be forced to leave the field and the meaning we derive from this powerful work. Victor Frankl's Man's Search For Meaning discusses that above happiness, meaning in one's life is the most powerful factor in resiliency.
One of my areas of specialty is children's death notification as well as suicide assessment, prevention, intervention, and post-vention. If I take off the "professional Michelle-mask", I have to admit that this work is hard on me. It's hard on my body, soul, spirit, energy, mind and relationships. Part of that has to do with personal experience of having someone close die to suicide when I was a college student. Part of it is just that the very nature of my empathetic response becomes so in tuned with the vortex of pain in those I work with that I feel drained after a group meeting.
I could wax poetic about my hero complex or co-dependence (years of therapy later I still have a hard time saying no to a good sales pitch - and please don't call me to test me), but it's more than that. Compassion fatigue is aptly named. Being compassionate is draining.
Last night, I led my first of an 8-week adult suicide survivors group. Night one is "tell your story". For me, as the leader, it means I listen to 8-12 stories of how someone was alive one minute, and killed themselves the next. Confusion, sadness, guilt, regrets lurked in the room like unwanted house guests. What did I do to cope? I did the following self-care:
o debriefed with my co-leader;
o listened to music and drove with the top down and wind in my hair;
o called a friend in the helping profession to process;
o reached out to people whom I love and told them how much they mean to me; ate a healthy dinner and did yoga stretches (in fact, I am on a health kick and am now in the best shape of my life since high school!);
o journaled and laughed;
o went to bed early;
o read, meditated, and took it easy this morning and had lunch with a really cool person (on Valentine's Day - Woo hoo!); AND,
o as I do daily, I also prayed the Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
I spend nearly two to three times the amount of time I spend in group or in sessions, taking care of myself.
But if I am honest, I HAVE to do this. If I did not, I would be mush. I get too close to the pain of others, and it sometimes makes me question what I am doing here... not here at my computer typing this blog for you... but HERE, on this earth, doing this work. Why?
Just like the children we support on their grief journeys have their own "Whys" to answer, you may have your own reasons for "Why?" you do this work. For me, it's biblical (take care of the widows and orphans) and it's philosophical (NAGC's "Because all grieving children deserve a chance to heal").
Yet, each of us has a vulnerable, internal child who sometimes feels sadness, anger, guilt, and/or fear when accompanying others on their grief journey. That inner child needs attention, love, nurturing, patience, positive reinforcement and support as much as we would give to a baby or puppy in their vulnerable growing state. With babies and puppies, we instinctively feed them, cuddle them, and provide tenderness. Yet, I often hear people self-judge, lose patience, and neglect themselves. Some of us are our own worst critics. Others of us are not self-aware enough NOT to lash out on those who care for us. And, others force themselves to repress any negative and push themselves to "think about the benefits" or ONLY good things. The balance in the center is the sweet spot of admitting vulnerability, being kind to oneself and asking for love, affection or help from others when you need it.
Make a list of ways you can care for yourself in vulnerable moments (take a shower, make a cup of tea, think kind thoughts to yourself, coach yourself through any vulnerable moments, etc.). Make another list of people you can trust to support you when you are down. If you don't have anyone on your support list, join a group or an online community to start building that resource for yourself.
Ultimately, what I sometimes need to reset my battery is something as simple as 25 hugs (preferably one from 25 different people but 25 hugs from one person will do the trick in a pinch) and gratitude. Today I am acutely aware of how grateful I am for those of you who love me enough to keep sharing your self-care ideas, supportive words, big hearts, and listening ears. AND, I'm so grateful to NAGC who helps remind me that if I am abroad, in a small town, or isolated in a large glamorous, status-driven city like Los Angeles, I am not in this work alone.
♦ Blogposts by NAGC staff, members and guest writers are solely the opinion of the author. We recognize that there are varying opinions regarding issues related to childhood grief and we encourage respectful responses and discussion. Members may login and comment on this page - all others are encouraged to comment on our facebook page.