By Jason MacNeil
A Village Life Exclusive

In an average week, Marie Gallant sees a side of life that most of the rest of us would rather never see.

For the past 23 years, she's been a social worker at the IWK Hospital for Children in Halifax, Nova Scotia, working with dying children and teenagers suffering from cystic fibrosis.

"It takes a lot out of you," she says. "It's very physically and emotionally draining. With each child and each family, the pain is as hard. I think with an accumulation of years, it gets harder in a sense because you're grieving for all these kids.

"I had so many kids die. Today I'm very conscious of Tammy who died last week. That was a real crisis because last Tuesday we knew that was it. It's really, really hard when you go home because you're thinking, 'I wonder how she is now, I wonder how she's doing, I wonder if she's worse.' The week that they're dying is very hard, of course, to separate."

For Gallant and other caregivers, dealing with traumatic situations on a daily basis while trying to maintain a normal home and family life can result in a tremendous amount of stress and burnout. A recent conference in Halifax attended by about 70 nurses, social workers, and caregivers suggested ways for these professionals to avoid burnout.

"It can become very difficult," said Dr. Therese Rando, a Rhode Island psychotherapist and author of several books on anticipatory grief. "Suppose you are taking care of people who are dying or who are bereaved, you know very well that nothing is promised to anyone. Your husband could be crossing the street and be killed by a drunk driver. So all of your beliefs about the world are changed when you work in this field. That can interfere with your home life."

She too has suffered burnout.

"I had compassion fatigue because in my head I knew what I was going to do but I coudn't feel," she says. "I had to force myself to do what needed to be done to help people. It's a terrible feeling."

Studies both in the United States and Canada have shown that these workers are more prone to suffer health complications and depression than workers in other fields. So, because of the nature of the occupation, workers must walk a fine line between acting professionally and becoming too attached.

Rando also says these workers find themselves in "the helper's pit." The ill patient in a pit needs a helping hand from the caregiver to get them out. A healthy caregiver will stand near the edge of the pit, whereas a caregiver who is too emotionally involved will jump into the pit with the patient, and not be as effective as they could be.

"Those of us who are highest in our desire to help will be those who will tend to burn out," she says. "The research shows the most emphatic people have the most difficulty. Because they were so emphatic, they could feel what the dying patient was feeling and it became very difficult for them. Any kind of investment we have with these people that gets severed in death will generate some sort of grief in us."

Some of the ways caregivers can avoid burnout, according to Rando, is by knowing what they can and cannot do, keeping themselves healthy, coping with grief when it arises, and enjoying their time away from work.

"If we don't take care of ourselves and make sure that there's life in our life and not just focusing on death and dying, we're going to be unbalanced people," Rando says. "It's hard not to, but we should try to leave it there psychologically and not try to take it home."

But both agree becoming emotionally numb to the constant grief isn't helpful either.

"I don't think I ever want to get to a stage where I'm not affected but you don't want to go too far and actually fall into the pit," Rando adds.

Gallant agrees.

"If I felt this was a breeze and I was emotionally detached, my work wouldn't be meaningful," she says. "Part of what makes it important for me is that my heart is totally in this. I wouldn't want to work here if I got to the point where I said, 'So what! It's another death.'

"When you watch so many kids dying and die, it sure makes you appreciate everyday and what you have."

The following are books that have been written by Dr. Therese Rando on the subject of caring for the dying. You may find out more about these titles or order them by clicking on them below -- or visit our bookstore for additional reading on this subject:

Grief, Dying, and Death: Paperback List: $22.95 -- Price: $22.95
How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies: Paperback List: $12.95 -- Price: $11.65 -- You Save: $1.30(10%)
Parental Loss of a Child: Paperback List: $22.95 -- Price: $22.95
Treatment of Complicated Mourning: Hardcover List: $39.95 -- Price: $39.95
Changing Patterns of Human Existence: Hardcover List: $32.75 -- Price: $32.75

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