Caring for Yourself After Caring for Others

I have been an American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health volunteer for the last 15 years. During that time, I’ve worked on local disasters including house fires, hazmat incidents, and drownings. I’ve deployed across the country to various natural disasters including floods and fires, and person-made disasters including the shootings at Sandy Hook and Uvalde. The deployments are one to two weeks; during this time, staff and we volunteers work with clients who have been affected and help them to cope with their situations. 

We are in constant motion, moving from person to person and task to task. Then it is time to go home. Most often, I am ready to head home. But I will say that I was surprised at first by what it looked like to go home, and I think a lot of people who work in organizations centered around grief may relate.

I came home with a lot of emotion that I didn’t at first realize I had.  One time, after coming home from Sandy Hook, I got on the treadmill to decompress. As I started running, tears started streaming and moved quickly to full-throttle crying. I realized that I had stored up a lot of my own feelings over the week. It was interesting to me that a lot of the tension from the prior week was stored in my body and came out with movement. Getting that out felt really good.

I felt a mixture of happiness and sadness. I felt happy that I was able to help those affected by the disasters, but it felt hard to leave behind the people who had suffered with their losses and grief. Volunteers and staff who work with those who have experienced trauma often feel guilt about leaving others behind, knowing there is more work to do. And that is a natural response that has its basis in compassion.

Many people wanted to hear about my experiences…but not really. While I wanted to talk about my experience during deployment, I could feel that not all people around me were so eager to hear about the details. I don’t blame anyone, the stories are sometimes hard to hear. While we volunteers get used to hearing stories of loss and grief, it may not be comfortable for everyone. And others may also feel a bit guilty that they are not out doing this work. 

I felt a little lost. Working on a disaster is constant motion. You are busy and feeling useful every minute. Suddenly when you are home, you are moving in much slower motion. I felt like I didn’t know what to do with myself for a while.

It’s important for people who work and volunteer in fields that include grief to know these feelings and experiences are not unique–and they are understandable reactions to doing difficult work. 

Also, there are strategies that I have found helpful over the years–some you can do while you’re away doing the work, and some are for when you return to and can further take care of your own well-being.

Five key steps for self-care after working with grieving people

Make sure you plan space for self-care. Though there may be things to do all the time, allow yourself to say no to a few things so that you can have time  for calming activities, like reading, exercising, taking a way, talking to a friend, etc.  We all need time to rejuvenate between periods of being available emotionally and physically to others.

Take time after volunteering to tend to yourself with activities like long walks (bonus: bringing a pet you love). Top image: Wendy volunteering at the Boston Marathon.

Share your experiences. During our deployments, we are there for each other to share difficult stories and interactions we come across. Of course, only share if you feel comfortable doing so. We all process our experiences differently and in a different time frame.  Connect with friends and family back home. Talking with friends and family while you are away, even if it is about everyday things going on, helps you to feel connected and remember that there are people who you’ll come home to who care about you.

When you return home, give yourself a lot of grace. Even if it was a great experience, you likely had many feelings and felt deeply for the kids. If you don’t feel like doing anything for a while or find yourself not concentrating well, that is understandable. Give yourself time to reconnect to your life by doing quiet things that you enjoy, like sitting outside and listening to the birds sing or reading a novel.

Reflect on your experience. You may want to jot down notes in a journal. Reflecting on your interactions and experiences allows you to process what went on, even if it is in little bits.

Call in resources if and when needed. If you find that you are not feeling more connected over time, or the experiences you had are causing distress, consider reaching out to get counseling. A counselor can provide support and help you work through feelings you may have about your experience.

Our compassion is one of the greatest gifts we can give to others who are grieving. But in order to do so, we need to be compassionate with and care for ourselves too. 

Wendy Grolnick is a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Her research focuses on how parents and teachers can create environments that facilitate children’s motivation. She is also interested in what factors help caregivers provide these facilitative environments. Professor Grolnick has been a Disaster Mental Health volunteer and instructor for the American Red Cross for the last 15 years. In this capacity, she has served as team leader in her area, responding to local disasters, and has deployed to various disasters across the country. She also runs emergency preparedness programs for children.