“I’m exhausted and I just can’t seem to focus.” These are the words often spoken by many people who are experiencing grief in response to the loss of a loved one. However, these can also be some warning signs that a person may be experiencing the effects of Compassion Fatigue. Sometimes labeled “Vicarious Trauma”, Compassion Fatigue is defined as the “physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those that care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time.”1 Often times a family member or a good friend takes on the role of caregiver for a person who is nearing the end of their life. As the days, weeks, months, and sometimes even years go by, the caregiver consistently and fully invests themselves into caring for their loved one. There is no question that the caregiver is an amazing blessing to the person. They have sacrificed their own desires and needs in order to care for their loved one with such devotion. However, while a caregiver may not notice it in the day to day moments, there is a cost for caring and the cost is often not realized until after a loved one has passed away. This is where the cost of caring and grief collide.
What to Watch For
While caregivers are often locked into survival mode and unable to recognize signs of Compassion Fatigue until after a loved one has passed, there are definitely some signs to be on the lookout for. When these signs are recognized, a caregiver can take preventive steps to care for themselves as well. Some common signs of Compassion Fatigue include:
• Reduced ability to feel sympathy and empathy
• Anger and irritability
• Increased use of alcohol and drugs
• Dreading caregiving responsibilities
• Disruption to world view, heightened anxiety or irrational fears
• Intrusive imagery or dissociation
• Hypersensitivity or insensitivity to emotional material
• Impaired ability to make decisions and care for a loved one
• Problems with intimacy and in personal relationships
What if it’s too late? What if grief and compassion fatigue and grief have already collided?
It is important to develop a plan if you realize that Compassion Fatigue is complicating your grief. Here are some steps you can take to begin to heal and recover from Compassion Fatigue:
• Find someone with whom you can share honestly and openly about your thoughts and feelings
• Remember that what you are feeling is normal in light of what you have been through
• Start exercising and eating properly
• Get enough sleep
• Find a support group where you can meet people with similar experiences of grief and loss
• Consider developing a new hobby
• Be intentional about scheduling time and space where you can physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually heal. Do this away from your normal environment if necessary.
Grief is a journey with no exact timeframe or road map. Grief is often a very difficult journey in itself with many ups, downs, and bumps along the way. When someone is experiencing the effects of Compassion Fatigue as they travel the road of grief, the journey can feel almost unbearable. If the cost of caring has collided with your grief, reach out for some support today. There are people out there who will walk alongside you and help to ease the pain you are experiencing. You are not alone.
Jeremy Brown, Community Hospice Bereavement Specialist
 “Compassion Fatigue.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 22 June 2017.