Holidays can be tricky for people in the helping professions, and for their clients.
The head of a non-profit in Austin, Texas hired me to conduct a seminar on compassion fatigue. She had heard a few of the staff grumble about how some of their clients only came around for holiday meals. She was concerned those staff were becoming jaded and cynical.
For those in the helping professions, holidays can be especially tricky. You give and give all year in your work, and then the holidays trigger loneliness and sadness in your clients. Worse, you may share those triggers. If you don’t, maybe you just haven’t experienced much loneliness or loss yourself, so it’s harder to relate.
Everybody has a story that will break your heart. Everybody. During the holidays, people often reflect on the past. Especially past holidays. Sometimes those are the happy memories, but there’s no one left who shares those memories. Sometimes the heart breaking memories are the ones that come out on holidays, either because they are related to the holiday itself, or because there is loss that feels like an empty place inside during a time that is supposed to be about family and friends. This is especially true in 2020, when we can't gather with family and friends, in order for everyone to stay well.
My mother, Betty Joy Chastain, died when my son was eleven. All of my life and his, she made Christmas special. She was like a kid herself over everything about the holiday. From decorating, to caroling, to presents. She was especially gifted at giving.
Whatever her children, and later, grandchildren wanted for Christmas, she made sure they got it. Even if she didn’t know what it was, and had to trek all over town to find it, she got it and put it under the tree for Christmas morning. It was fun to see how much she enjoyed making dreams come true. She grew up poor, sleeping in one bedroom with her mother and brother. She didn't want the kinds of disappointments she had growing up for her children and grandchildren.
The Christmas after she died was nearly impossible. My sister, son and I opened presents at my house. The rest of our family was in another city. I had failed in getting my son exactly what he wanted, something his Mimi, my mother, would never do.
We realized no one had thought what to do for Christmas dinner. That had always been Mom's job. We migrated to my sister’s house where she put together her simple but delicious stew. My son flew his model airplane. At some point in the day, he burst out crying. At eleven, he was still a kid. While the tears were for all the losses, especially the love and attention of his grandmother, some of them were about missing the wished for red scooter. I’ve apologized since, and realize now I didn't get it because I thought it was dangerous. My mother had died in a one car wreck.
When it’s your clients remembering sad holidays, they may or may not tell you, unless you’re their therapist. Other helpers might see unusual behavior, such as withdrawal, or more activity verging on mania. Maybe you only see these clients once or twice a year, during holidays. And that seems strange to you, because your services and those of your non-profit are there every other time of the year. Why don’t they come more often?
Some of them can manage their lonely feelings the rest of the year. Maybe they have friends, or other support systems. It’s easier to not see yourself as alone when you have options. But holidays, societally and culturally, mean families. And it seems like your friends have all got family to be with. They may think to invite you, or they may not. So, either way you can feel lonely all by yourself, or while surrounded by other’s family and friends. This year is even more difficult. Even those of us with faimilies have chosen not to gather.
Maybe these people suffer from depression all year, which makes them withdrawn. They may have techniques and medication to manage depression, but lonely holidays exacerbate depression.
It’s worse for the elderly. The older we are, the more loss we have experienced. And if you work with that population, you may get fatigued by what you perceive as their neediness. Especially during the holidays.
How does knowing any of this help you with your own compassion fatigue?
You can listen and share.
It’s counterintuitive to think hearing more stories can restore our compassion. But it’s not really about the stories. It’s about those telling them, and you listening with a fresh openness. Whether the story is happy or sad, what’s important is the connection, not the story itself. Real connection is invigorating.
When someone you know, or work with, especially an older person, appears withdrawn or reflective, sit down with them for a few minutes and ask them what they are feeling, and why.
Then ask them to tell you their favorite memory of the holidays.
Reliving good memories by telling them, especially if accompanied by photos, increases happiness and reduces depression, according to a British study reported in the "Journal of Clinical Psychological Science." Aliza Werner-Seidler, Tim Dalgleish First Published April 20, 2016 Brief Report https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702615626693.
Really listen mindfully, respond appropriately, and then ask if they want to hear yours. It feels magical, and is scientifically proven, that people can’t talk about happy memories without feeling happy again, even briefly.
By listening and sharing your own happy memory, you both get the joy of lifting each other’s spirits, and you form a real connection. When we are deeply connecting with someone, our compassion flows naturally, and the joy of connection lifts fatigue.