“Fill your bucket.” “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” “Practice what you preach.” Clichés exist for a reason, and those three and others remind caregivers that self-care is not selfish. In fact, it is essential to longevity in altruistic vocations that are centered on supporting people through the most difficult moments of life.

Understanding Emotional Labor

Funeral directors, clergy, chaplains, social workers, and others who provide emotional and spiritual support to the dying and bereaved are immersed in emotional labor. People in these vocations carry heavy stories and are surrounded by raw emotions.

It is often a calling and part of the caregiver’s identity, and it can be incredibly difficult to know when the honor of being present for others has become too much. Just like there is strength in the bereaved asking for help from friends, professionals, or in support groups, there is also strength in caregivers accepting that they have reached their limits, too. It is not a job that has to be done alone, and caregivers deserve someone to care for them.

Recognizing When You Reach Your Limits

Burnout and compassion fatigue, which are often confused as being the same thing, are the results of not caring for yourself and carrying more emotional labor than is healthy. Burnout comes from being overworked and stressed. People who are experiencing burnout are emotionally exhausted, and work performance often declines. They may appear fine on the outside, but they find less meaning and joy in their jobs.

Compassion fatigue is the result of secondary trauma and carrying the trauma and emotional distress of others, with symptoms resembling PTSD. Those experiencing compassion fatigue may begin to feel hopeless and have less empathy. Hope, empathy, boundaries, and meaning are all important in these professions, and self-awareness and self-care give caregivers the space to ensure those characteristics remain intact and compassion fatigue and burnout are kept at bay.

Periodic vacations are not enough to stay healthy when your daily life is full of death, dying, and high emotions. If caregivers do not maintain regular self-care and healthy boundaries, then PTO days may feel like a band-aid. Caregivers often feel guilty for taking time for themselves, as it is in their nature to give. But it is so important that they do.

It is also OK to step away from a stressful situation for a few minutes. Excuse yourself, go to the bathroom, and just process through the overwhelming feelings. By giving yourself a moment to regroup, you will be better equipped to face the situation wholeheartedly.

Taking Time to Breathe

When you feel like you are reaching your limits, take a moment and think of activities, places, people, and pets that bring you hope, peace, and joy. Big and small things matter. For example, schedule occasional hikes in a local nature preserve, and be intentional about daily walks in your neighborhood. Journaling, breathwork, reading sacred texts and books that are not work-related, cooking or baking, exercise, and spending time with pets are all great examples of activities that can be incorporated into your daily life. Be intentional. Remind yourself that every time you do something that brings you peace, joy, or hope, you are ultimately helping the people in your care.

There are many people who have yet to benefit from your compassion, active listening, and presence, and they deserve to have you at your best. For that to happen, you have to remember that you matter. Because you do.

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