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Sometimes, no matter how well we plan, no matter how capable we are, life just throws more at us than we can figure out how to manage.
We try to be prepared, and even leave a little wiggle room to deal with unexpected things that might come up, but it doesn’t always work. In my daily practice as a small animal veterinarian, I meet many people who are juggling multiple caretaking responsibilities. They are often frustrated with the balancing act of trying to figure out where their attention is most needed. If you are caring for, say, a struggling adult child as well as an elderly and sick parent, where do you find the time and physical and emotional energy to now also take care of the active 3-year-old Miniature Poodle with a ruptured disc? The poodle, by the way, is the one who seems to understand everything you’re going through and just lives to entertain and love you.
In the midst of each day’s activity, our beloved animal companions often give us a simple and clear sense of love and acceptance. Something about them gives us comfort that is predictable and unquestioned. So when you cannot devote as much time to your pet when he is ill or injured as you might like, it can feel like a betrayal of that unconditional love. You might want to put a higher priority on your pet’s care, but instead must sometimes prioritize differently. In such situations, it is easy to feel guilty and overwhelmed.
It is normal to experience stress in caring for others simply because you are witnessing their discomfort and struggles. It can be even more stressful if you are trying to balance the needs of more than one other being that is dependent on you for help, such as kids, parents and pets. Our empathy and compassion, our desire to provide love and to ease suffering, can open us up to experiencing a variety of stressful reactions. Compassion stress, if not addressed and managed, can adversely affect our own physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual health, resulting in compassion fatigue. As defined by Dr. Charles Figley (the “godfather” of this area of study), compassion fatigue in a caregiving setting is a state of exhaustion due to intense or prolonged exposure to suffering. Aside from the negative impact it can have on our own health and well-being, compassion fatigue can interfere with our ability to continue to care for those we love. And while compassion stress and fatigue were first noted in professionals who worked with ill, injured or traumatized people, it is now known that both can occur in any caregiving setting.
The good news is, compassion stresses are manageable as long as we take the time to notice when we are affected, and take measures to counteract the effects of the stress. Try to shift your feelings of guilt into taking comfort from your pet. One of the most effective ways to counterbalance the stress is to give yourself credit for the good things you have done for others in your life, including your animals, and to take time to enjoy the satisfaction that comes with knowing that what you did is important and made a difference. Realize that our pets do not see our failings. If we are lucky enough to have animals in our lives, pausing to stop and experience the gift that is this most special bond is sure to help.
Animals seem to live completely in the present. Even if we think we lapse in providing them with what we think would be “ideal” care, they never get angry or judgmental. Instead, they seem to delight in even the simplest of pleasures when interacting with us. These moments are the precious reminders of the comfort our pets derive from simply “being” with us. A dog that all but curls itself sideways when wagging its tail at our arrival (no matter how long we’ve been gone) tells us that he has noticed our love and care and delights in our mere presence. A kitty who head butts you, kneads her paws on your lap, and demands “drop what you are doing and pay attention to me now” is proof of the comfort she finds in your attention.
Pause to savor those tail thumps and those cheek-rubbing purrs for what they are: happiness in relation to us, and maybe even expressions of gratitude for what we do and who we are.
Dr. Carrie La Jeunesse is a practicing veterinarian who is also certified in grief and compassion fatigue counseling. She is a frequent lecturer and workshop presenter on topics related to grief, loss, spirituality and compassion fatigue, particularly as they relate to veterinary medicine and the human-animal bond.
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