Holidays can be tricky for people in the helping professions, and for their clients.
I’m giving a short seminar today to a non-profit organization on compassion fatigue and how to combat it. The person who scheduled me had heard staff grumble about how some of their clients never came around except for holiday meals. She was concerned they were becoming jaded and cynical.
For those in the helping professions, holidays can be especially taxing. 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. Or you are feeling jaded and cynical.
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 heartbreaking 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.
My mother 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. I have so many memories of toys piled high, first for me, and then for my son, the only grandson. So much joy in receiving, but even more joy seeing how she enjoyed giving.
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 would never do.
Then we realized no one had thought what to do for Christmas dinner. 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 still don’t remember why the hell I didn’t get it for him.
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 helpers become judgmental about this.
Why do some people only show up around holidays, even when they need help throughout the year?
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 surrounded by other’s family and friends.
Maybe you suffer from depression all year, and that makes you withdrawn. You have techniques and medication to manage depression, But it’s simply too painful to spend holidays alone.
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 tired of what you perceive as their neediness. Especially during the holidays.
How does knowing any of this help you with your compassion fatigue?
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.
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. 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.
Previously published on medium
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Photo credit: by Ben White on Unsplash