By Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
This article is written for caregivers who companion dying and bereaved people. You may be a hospice staff member, clergyperson, funeral director, social worker, nurse, counselor, physician or volunteer. Regardless of your title, good self-care is essential to truly “being present” to those we wish to help.
The over-caring caregiver
The first step to good self-care is to realize if you are an over-caring caregiver. Do you continually put the needs of the dying and the bereaved before your own, ultimately to your detriment?
The following are signs that you care too much:
- A tendency to try to please others instead of yourself
- A desire to “solve” people’s problems rather than create conditions that allow them to move toward reconciliation of their own issues
- A tendency to overextend and overcommit
- A desire to do things for people that they can do for themselves
- A tendency to continually “check on” those in your care
- A tendency to need your clients as much, if not more, than they need you
- A tendency to neglect your own intimate relationships in favor of helping “needy clients”
Over-caring prevention and intervention strategies
Just as healing in grief is a process, so is recovering from caring too much for dying and bereaved people. Acknowledge potential problems and be hopeful that you will make positive changes.
Create an awareness of overcaring and its impact on your life.
An awareness allows the recovery process to begin and breaks down the denial of self-defeating behaviors.
Work to acknowledge feelings of helplessness regarding control of over-caring behavior.
In other words, surrender. Begin your work with a newfound revelation… you do not have to be all things to all people at all times.
Explore related personal issues.
Does your need to help others with death and grief relate to unreconciled personal losses? If so, be certain not to use your counseling relationships to work on your own issues.
Develop ways of nurturing yourself.
Explore your own feelings instead of focusing on everybody else’s. Play more and make fun a part of your daily life.
Be compassionate when you occasionally slip back into martyrdom.
Your tendency to want to be in control will not be overcome quickly or easily.
Stop making your helping relationships your sole source of personal happiness.
While relationships can help you feel good about yourself, you don’t need the approval of others to have a sense of well-being. Work to attain self-approval and self-acceptance.
Self-care for caregivers
How do we care well for others while at the same time caring for ourselves? Consider the following guidelines, keeping in mind they are not intended to be cure-alls, nor will they be appropriate for everyone. Choose what will aid your efforts to stay physically and emotionally healthy.
1. Time-management skills
- Create specific goals for personal and professional development.
Divide your annual goals into monthly goals, weekly goals into daily goals. Ask, “What do I want to accomplish this year, this month, this week, this day?”
- Do one thing at a time.
Caregivers are notorious for trying to do and be all things to all people and all projects. Quality suffers when you try to do too many things. Protect from constant interruptions. Schedule uninterrupted time as necessary to complete tasks.
- Work when you work best.
We all have certain natural peak hours of performance. Are you a morning person or a night person? Does a brief nap recharge you?
- Delegate tasks when possible.
Someone else might do “busy work” more efficiently.
- Throughout the day ask, “What’s the best use of my time right now?”
Focus on those tasks that need to be done first. This requires discipline, but will pay many dividends.
2. Build support systems
Ideally, supportive colleagues and friends provide the following:
- Unconditional acceptance and support—provided through friendship, meeting our need to be nurtured and understood.
- Help with complicated situations—colleagues provide valuable advice regarding our efforts to aid the dying and the bereaved.
- Mentoring—inspirational role models provide encouragement to develop our professional abilities.
- Challenges—provide encouragement to stretch beyond our current limits.
- Referrals—connection with colleagues provides additional professional resources for those in your care.
3. The importance of "spiritual time”
Nurturing my spirit is critical to my work as a bereavement caregiver. “Spiritual time” helps me combat fatigue, frustration and life’s disappointments. To be present for those I work with and to learn from those I companion, I must appreciate the beauty of life and living. Some people do this through prayer and meditation. Others might through physical “alone time” and hike, bike or run, or spend time in nature.
Ask yourself: How do I renew my spirit?
4. Listen to your inner voice
As a caregiver to the dying and the bereaved, you will at times become grief overloaded (too much death, grief and loss in your day-to-day life). Listen if your inner voice says, “I cannot handle any more sadness right now. I need and deserve a spirit break.”
About the author
Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., is a noted author, teacher and grief counselor known internationally for outstanding educational contributions to both adult and childhood grief. He serves as director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine.