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Preventing Compassion Fatigue

As a Clinical Social Worker, when COVID hit, I kept telling myself that I was completely fine – that I was managing well and that I had good coping strategies. But about 4 weeks in, I was on my kitchen floor, flat out at 4:00pm.

My husband walked into the kitchen, startled, and asked urgently why I was on the floor. It was in that moment that I actually acknowledged how I was feeling – I remember saying, “I don’t think I’m handling COVID as well as I thought…”

It can be so easy for us to find ourselves in a similar situation when we are journeying with others through grief. We spend so much time taking on the pain of others that we sometimes forget to look after ourselves.

Our coping strategies and tendencies may cause us to adopt a ‘push through’ mentality, or a belief that we can’t slow down. Both of these can blind us to the personal impact we may be experiencing when supporting someone else in their grief.

We know that people still look to the church, look to the leaders and volunteers for support in times of need. We also know that as we volunteer to serve youth, we will inevitably journey with others through their own grief story. 

In order to prevent our own burnout and experiences of compassion fatigue, it is important that we build our own capacity for self-awareness and acknowledge where we are in relation to the pain that we are encountering when supporting others in their grief.

1. Know You are Enough

When loss appears in front of us, our own sense of capacity can be called into question. We begin to ask ourselves “where do I start?” or “what I can possibly do to support someone else going through this?”. The age-old question of “who am I to….?” can be loud and domineering. 

The key is to remember that your relationship with the other person is enough. Your ability to hold space, to witness their pain and offer compassion is enough. This takes the pressure off of feeling the need to say the ‘right’ thing or ‘do’ something to fix it. 

Simply being you, and meeting your youth where they are, is enough.

While we need to hold the fundamental belief of “I am enough to support someone,” we also need to hold in our awareness that the need may reach beyond our own capacity. Our role can always be to help guide the individual to additional and professional help.

2. Understand Our Own Emotional Journey

When we witness someone’s story of pain, it will ultimately poke at our own story of loss and bereavement. If we don’t acknowledge our own emotions, they can bubble under the surface and prevent us from supporting others effectively. Without fully realizing it, these emotions can make it difficult for us to walk alongside others in a healthy way. 

When working with grief which can feel like an intense emotion it may be helpful to consider the following questions:

  1. What personal experiences have I had with grief? 

  2. How am I feeling about this grief being brought to me? 

  3. How does this grief relate to me? Am I also experiencing grief here? 

  4. What’s getting in the way for me to offer compassion?

  5. Am I carrying their pain beyond our conversations? What does this look like?

3. Naming Our Emotional Needs

When it comes to deepening our own sense of awareness, we also need to learn the skill of identifying and naming what we need. There is inherent vulnerability when we fully acknowledge that we may need to pursue intentional actions for our own support and wellbeing.

It takes practice to identify what you need emotionally and spiritually. Allow yourself the grace to learn what feels supportive and healthy for you and what doesn’t. It very well may be trial and error exploring options. It also may take some time.

Allowing yourself some space to simply reflect may be one way to begin the practice of identifying your own needs:

  1. What kind of support do I require based on how I’m coping or feeling?

  2. Who can I reach out to for support in the midst of my own grief? 

  3. Who can help me process the emotions that have been brought up while helping others?

  4. Do I need some time alone? Or perhaps some time with Jesus? 

  5. Would it be helpful to talk to someone about my experience in supporting someone else in their pain?

4. Extending Compassion to Ourselves

How do you currently extend compassion towards yourself? We build resilience against compassion fatigue and burnout by knowing that we need to care for ourselves and by taking intentional steps to support our own emotional and spiritual wellbeing. It becomes critical for us to accept and receive the same compassion that we so readily extend to others.

It is a posture of self-compassion and grace that supports us in our journey of believing we are enough to walk with others in their grief. It allows us to create space to understand our emotions, and it will prompt us to be open and honest about what we need as we support those around us.


Has your youth work led you to consider pursuing a call to ministry?

Acadia Divinity College offers a Masters of Divinity in Pastoral Care and Counselling that will equip you to provide support for those facing mental health concerns, struggling with addictions, at risk of suicide, or dealing with grief and loss.

If you’d like more ideas on how to equip your youth ministry team to walk with students through grief and loss you should watch the on-demand webinar with some of the experts from Acadia Divinity College. Find that here.

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