I just returned from a moving workshop at Mount Sinai Hospital called Postcards from the Edge: Addressing Compassion Fatigue in Note Form.
It was given by Ronna Bloom, the poet in residence at Mount Sinai.
The focus was compassion fatigue, the natural stress that arises in health workers caring for, and wanting to help, someone who is suffering or traumatized.
Ronna described it as "the cost of caring for others in emotional pain, exposure to traumatic events or hearing clients talking about their trauma, and witnessing suffering without being able to improve the circumstances."
Symptoms include re-experiencing patient trauma; avoiding reminders of it; and emotional numbing.
She described empathy as the cornerstone of good care: "Opening our hearts and minds to patients." But it is this openness that also makes health workers vulnerable to compassion fatigue.
Ronna said that writing poems can be a way for professionals to "support, express, or dump what they are carrying, or to cradle or hold it." There is something about the process of writing our experience down on paper that may allow us to carry it in a different way.
This struck me as relevant to parent caregivers of children with disabilities.
Ronna had us do some writing prompts, but began by giving us these five brilliant rules:
1. Don't think
2. Keep your hand moving
3. Don't censor
4. You are free to write the worst crap possible
5. You don't have to share
I think the most important are number 1—don't think—and number 3—don't censor. Of course knowing that you don't have to share what you write frees you up to write in this way.
One of the exercises involved writing "towards someone or something, a concept."
It could be "Dear Next Patient" or "An Open Letter to Compassion." This was an opportunity to "respond to our world without sharing."
I found this to be very therapeutic. By focusing on feeling (and silencing critical thought) I put something down that helped me see more clearly how I felt.
Some participants shared their writing and the emotion felt by these health professionals as they described their caring work was palpable. "A sense of helplessness is at the core of compassion fatigue," noted one participant.
I think these techniques can be useful for parents and hope to learn more about them.
In the meantime, I'll remember that if I feel heavy with emotion or angst, writing freely about it can release it from where it's being tightly held within my body, and allow me to see it in a new way.
This workshop was offered through the Health, Arts & Humanities program at the University of Toronto.