Foundation, reminding you that a fully-integrated approach for assisting survivors of
traumatic loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written
and copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D. and distributed by the Family
Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., fafonline.org. Reprint is available
with written permission from the Foundation.
Summer is Comprised of More than One Season
"The time will come when winter will ask what you were doing all summer."
-Henry Clay 1777-1852
(American Lawyer and Kentucky Statesman)
The month of December for most of the world represents holiday time—where much
focus is placed on merriment and connection with others. For many, it also reminds
us of another year of accomplishments, both professionally and personally. As the
year ends, many of us will review goals and plans we made for 2017 and mark off
what we completed and make a note of what was left undone—or only
For caregivers, expectations of ourselves in our commitment to serve others and
our neverending ‘to do lists' often sets us up for disappointment with what we can
accomplish. We become caught up in trying to get it all done and often fail to see
what we did well and what we did get right. Unrealistic expectations often lead to
distress on our part, unnecessary suffering and second-guessing about our best
efforts. We only see what we failed to achieve, and due to our perfectionistic
tendencies, are unable to give ourselves credit for what we did accomplish. The
following story is an example of this.
Several years ago, an airline contracted with me to develop a learning module for
training their employee responders. As part of the contract, I interviewed care team
members who assisted families of deceased passengers from three fatal crashes
involving their company. One of the employees I talked with had worked with
numerous family members in the aftermath of the tragedies. While she found her
first two assignments to be very satisfying, she expressed regrets about the last
one that she had worked. The employee felt that she had disappointed the family
and that despite her best efforts, she had not performed as well for them as
others she had assisted previously. She described feeling burned out in her role
as a caregiver. This experience tainted the good memories of her
Over a decade later, as part of another project involving several accidents, I
happened to interview one of the family members that the employee had spoken
about. The man immediately brought up the name of the care team member and
asked me if I knew her. Without telling him anything about my discussion with her
and her work with him and his family, I confirmed that I did indeed know of her. The
man went on to tell me about his memories of her and how pleased he and his
family were with her assistance. The family member provided examples of what she
had done for them that exceeded their expectations. He told me how much it would
mean to him to meet up with her again someday. He explained that he had tried to
find her, but was unable to do so as she had retired from her previous employer.
The difference between what the survivor remembered about the team member’s
service to him and his family and the care giver’s perception of the assignment was
remarkable. It reminded me of how often high expectations of those involved in
caring for others can lead to unnecessary suffering on the part of the caregiver.
And secondly, how often unrealistic expectations can set us up for disappointment
in our performance that are unwarranted.
“Flow with whatever may happen and let your mind be free. Stay centered by
accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate."
–Zhuang Zhou, “Zhuangzi"
(Chinese Philosopher 370 BC-287 BC)
Those in leadership positions should ensure that all responders are properly
prepared for their roles by making sure that training is adequate for preparing them
to stay healthy in a highly stressful environment.
At the Foundation, we include a section on self-care and self-compassion in every
training class. Learning to take care of ourselves and our fellow team members,
as well as practicing self-compassion, is an integral part of taking care of those we
are assisting. Having realistic goals and expectations of ourselves allows us to
have patience and is part of the practice of self-compassion.
Self-compassion also allows us to feel our own emotions while keeping them
separate from those of the survivors we are assisting. When we can separate our
feelings from those we are trying to support, we are likely to remain less reactive to
situations highly charged with emotion. Managing our own emotions in the presence
of survivors, who by the nature of the crisis are not able to handle theirs, is a
necessary part of maintaining the balance needed to support others.
Learning to manage expectations, also an integral part of effective training, means
that the caregiver understands the limitations of what we can accomplish. While we
can offer practical support and bridge the gap between survivors and their families
back home, thereby making the grief more bearable, we cannot make the pain of the
losses less. Each survivor's journey is sacred and deeply personal.
We selected the opening quote to remind us about the long-term purpose of our
work. While there is a tendency to focus on what we did not get right, or what we
did not accomplish as we reflect on our year’s work, we often lose sight of the
long-term. When looking back over many years of work, as most of us will do, we will
proudly answer that the summer(s) of our lives were spent in service of others.
And finally, leadership can remind team members to give themselves credit for goals
accomplished—and that what did not get finished this past year, may be added to
next year's list. All of us at the Foundation are grateful to caregivers of all
professions everywhere for what you did during 2017 and every year you have
devoted your time to the service of others.
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