Professional caregivers are people that are on a medical care team- the doctors, nurses, social workers and case managers, for instance. Physical therapists, home health aides, pastors, Chaplin’s, helpline and hospice workers are also professional caregivers. And people like me, whose job it is to provide support, information and services to people impacted by cancer are also professional caregivers.
75% of the time my job is amazing. I get to be a hope-dealer and light internal fires that inspire people. I get to inform and empower patients who may be feeling lost or in despair. Sometimes information that I provide saves or prolongs life. Everything that I do helps improve quality of life. I get to speak to conference rooms full of people, partner with other organizations and professionals to help change the landscape of cancer survivorship and support.
I also get to comfort a patient who has just entered hospice, take that last phone call from those patients I’ve supported online/via telephone, and offer my shoulder to grieving family members. I also get to hold the hand of someone who’s taking their last breath. That’s the 25% of my job that rarely gets talked about.
Every death weighs on me heavily. For over 14 years I have supported cancer patients and the losses accumulate. Because I am a “professional caregiver” my grief is hidden, distant and not recognized. I’m not amazing. There is nothing extra-ordinary about me aside from the fact that I let everyone in and I get personally involved with every patient I come to know. That’s why I’m good at what I do. But every loss cuts deeply.
I get angry and I grow discouraged.
What I have learned over the years is that unacknowledged grief and loss will translate into burnout.
I’ve struggled to find things to help me during times of grief- to avoid burnout. I have some personal coping skills that help during my darkest times. I hope that what I have discovered in my decades-long professional caregiving may help someone else who may be struggling right now.
Here are 5 things to help you cope wtih professional caregiver grief:
Acknowledge Your Grief
When someone you’ve grown to know and care for gets bad news or passes away, it will affect you in some way. Acknowledge it. Talk to someone about the loss and give yourself the permission to grieve. I journal and blog- a lot- which helps me process through my grief.
Honor the Patient
Honor the patient in some way. This can be something as simple as taking a moment of silence, lighting a candle, saying a prayer or making a donation in their memory. There have been several times that I attended and even spoke at a patient’s memorial service. This isn’t for everyone- and I wouldn’t do it for every patient I have supported- but there will always be some patients that you grow very close to.
Put What You’ve Learned into Another Patient
Each time you support/care for a patient you learn something new. If you carry forward the positive things you learned to help another patient, you are keeping their memory alive.
Create a Support Network for Yourself
YOU need support. In order to continue to do the important work that you do, you need to be supported. Find people who will encourage and lift you up and make them part of your support circle. This could be other professionals, your family and friends and/or worship community. I would be remiss if I didn’t add the importance of seeking professional help when necessary. There’s nothing wrong with finding a professional who can help you process your grief. A therapist or counselor can help with grief and any feelings of hopelessness and depression. Feeling appreciated and supported in your work and personal life really goes a long way to help your emotional well-being.
Take a Break
Mental health breaks are important. I recommend a beach vacation twice a year! HA! Many of us can’t afford to take a vacation once or twice a year, so take regular time off to do somethings just for you. Find activities and hobbies that bring you joy- and do them. I find that creating things (jewelry, crafts, gifts, and photography) brings me joy. There is something life affirming in the creation of something from nothing. It lifts my spirits during those times when I feel like death and sadness is all around me- and I can’t afford a beach vacation.