Monday, November 1, 2010

Cumulative Grief in Healthcare Professionals ...

Earlier in the fall, I mentioned that I believe there is a missing, or at least underemphasized, component in our consideration of compassion fatigue in health care professionals. That component is cumulative grief.

Most of us are familiar with the Baranowsky-Gentry model of compassion fatigue which states that primary traumatic stress (the trauma that happens to us directly or that we witness directly), secondary traumatic stress (the trauma we experience indirectly through knowing about trauma in others' lives) and burnout (the chronic stress of perceived workplace demands exceeding perceived resources) converge in the life of the helper to cause compassion fatigue, a diminished capacity for or interest in being empathic with another's suffering.

As I have worked with family caregivers, I have modified this model a little to say that primary traumatic stress and secondary traumatic stress, in the presence of burnout and Chronic Sorrow, can lead to compassion fatigue. I have found this change to be helpful in emphasizing that CF is primarily a trauma issue that occurs in conjunction with burnout - not a form of burnout, itself, - and that the grief of Chronic Sorrow, extending from a loved one's diagnosis until his or her death, may also contribute to family caregivers' vulnerability to CF.

Once I had adjusted my CF thinking to incorporate the Chronic Sorrow of family caregivers, I began to wonder about the cumulative grief of healthcare professionals.

Grief is our normal, hardwired, healing response to loss and it will generally heal itself if we stay out of the way and support rather than blocking the natural process. But what if we work in an environment where loss is the norm? What if we form caring attachments to patients and families over and over again only to have the patients die and the families to move on with their lives? What if we work in environments that do not make time and space available to process our own grief or, worse, those that ridicule and shame such "weakness"?

There is a significant and growing literature base, still at the descriptive stage for the most part, focused on cumulative grief, which is defined as:

... our emotional response to the occurrence of multiple deaths,
either at the same time or in serial fashion,
without sufficient time or opportunity to
adequately grieve for each person who has died.

P. Marino (1998) Paraphrased

Phenomenological studies on cumulative grief have emerged from the fields of palliative care, oncology, critical care, paediatrics, gerontology and advanced nursing practice, particularly since the mid-1990's. There are also several professional magazine articles offering advice on how to cope with this accumulated grief, testifying to the importance of the topic at the grass roots level of practice. Last week's episode of CBC's White Coat, Black Art called, "When Your Life is Circling the Drain", reflects the impact of multiple deaths on young medical residents.

Not all work-related losses are considered traumatic, especially when healthcare practitioners have been able to provide "a good death" for both the patient and the family. Thus cumulative grief doesn't fit easily into our currently-held understanding of CF. However, these losses are real and can have a significant impact upon us, especially if left unattended. Do they actually contribute to increased vulnerability to CF? We don't know that yet but it is a rich area for further research.

In the meantime, I will continue to address cumulative grief within the context of CF in my healthcare workshops as it almost invariably and spontaneously comes to the fore.

Photo by BigStock Photos

No comments: