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running low

tapFor how long can a man be in the company of Death before it begins to wear on him? I’ve been working at hospice for almost seven months now. During that time about 250 people have come to die in our care (with others having gone into home or long-term care).  Add to that the many friends and relatives who accompanied these patients and the number goes to a thousand-plus. Thousand people with whom I entered into an intimate relationship. Strangers arrive and within minutes or hours they invite me (and my dear coworkers) into the most intimate sphere of their lives. And then, within days or weeks—sometimes hours—they vanish. That pattern takes a toll on those who stay behind, opening and closing their hearts of compassion, always ready to receive new “admissions” and to begin the caregiving process all over.


In recent days I’ve felt heavy, like a ballon steadily filling with water. A couple of times I observed my mind wandering into nowhere as I listened to someone speaking to me of anxiety and loss. For the first time this week, I preferred sleeping in to jumping out of bed and bike to work. I’ve begun to miss appointments. Everything’s become a bit of a burden. The lightness of the previous months has faded, to be replaced a sense of fatigue and occasional vertigo. I go to sleep and wake up thinking about work, recalling individuals or a collage of scenes to do with dying.


What’s going on? What is this?  

According to a coworker in whom I confided and an on-line source, the concept of compassion fatigue has emerged in the professional literature. It represents the cost of caring about and for traumatized people. Professionals who work with people in pain and anxiety must contend with not only the normal stresses of work, but also with the emotional and personal feelings for the suffering. This, apparently, is not burnout, which is cumulative and relatively predictable and often remedied by a vacation or change of job. Compassion fatigue is very different: it’s a state of tension and preoccupation with individual or cumulative trauma of clients.   



5 responses »

  1. sent to my home:

    ” Thinking of you….surrounding you in light….may your heart and body feel lighter and less burdened. This can be a time of year no matter what your occupation or predisposition to depression that can wear on a person. Take care of yourself in a loving way Peter….

  2. thank you H. your kind warm light warms mey heart. this too …

  3. compassion burnout…goes with what we do. We care deeply for others and it is equally important to remember to nurture ourselves. This is difficult as we are so readily drawn to the plight of others and …inevitably our body sends us wake up calls.

  4. i think it is the balance between withdrawals – giving to others – and deposits – giving to myself. in order to fully give myslef to others, i do the same and fill my own container. when i sustain the essence of who i am i fill myself up

    take care p…

  5. Hi Peter, I’ve read your post about running low and if I were able to open to people and give as much as you do, I imagine I would be exhausted too. You are the most giving person I’ve ever met. I will think of you and send energizing thoughts. The people you touch at Hospice may be gone from your life but they will always have what you’ve given them.
    I feel very lucky to have met you. The meditation classes have nourished something in me that I didn’t know was starving. The person you are has inspired me to try and learn how to be more open and giving and has enriched my life. Thank you


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