When Caring for Others Hurts

For years I have struggled with what to do with the feelings of sadness and pain that I have collected over my lifetime from taking care of my child with cancer, adjusting to a failed marriage, and working as a nurse in a cancer center. When we care deeply for someone, we feel their pain and when this pain is long-standing it wears us down till we become exhausted. Nurses call this compassion fatigue.

When we try to meet the physical and emotional needs of others in our life, we can run out of resources if we’re not taking excellent care of ourselves. I was not raised to do “self-care.” I grew up with the understanding that Christian women take care of others.

Thankfully, my son survived his ordeal with cancer. It was a very traumatic experience for all involved. He has been off all cancer medications for two years now, but every time we go to the hospital for scans or bone marrow biopsies, a growing anxiety and sadness creeps up on me. Seeing and hearing other children crying and looking miserable brings back unpleasant memories.

I loved my husband for 21 years. I prayed. I hoped. I read books on communication. Nothing impacted his rigid, abusive behavior. After an unsettling episode of violence, I moved out with no job and six children ages 6 to 19. He has turned his back on his three oldest children and acts like they don’t even exist. Watching the effect this has had on my precious children has been heartbreaking.

I worked for five years as a nurse caring for cancer patients while adjusting to a divorce and very unpleasant interactions with my ex and the court. I love nursing, but over time as person after person died, I began to feel overwhelmed with sadness. Sometimes, I would go to church and light a candle to honor the deceased. On those times when I could reminisce with family members, hug, and cry with them, I always felt like I had some closure. Usually, that did not happen and being a crazy busy, single mom made making time for such things very difficult. The quantity of suffering and death was often truly overwhelming. Add in to the mix ethical issues and different coping skills of all involved and I had STRESS and ANXIETY!

After work I would enter a home with teens who were NOT coping well. I was always sleep deprived. Time for myself was non-existent. Rest . . . what was that? I saw a counselor. I kept struggling on. Then one day, my body had enough and it crashed and burned. I have been unable to work for three years now due to multiple, severe health conditions.

Have I learned anything from my experiences that may benefit you, my dear reader? First of all, our health is precious and often taken for granted. I learned the hard way that only I can take care of my health. I’m the only one who can make sure I exercise, eat well, get enough sleep, spend time with God each day, and build a support system of friends and family to help hold me up through this difficult life. Do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself before your health is in ruins and you are full of regrets.

Second, life is both brutal and beautiful at the same time. Glennon Doyle Melton says this on her blog Momastery: “Life is brutal. But it’s also beautiful. Brutiful, I call it. Life’s brutal and beautiful are woven together so tightly that they can’t be separated. Reject the brutal, reject the beauty.”    

The difficult events allow the wonderful events to shine more brightly. You cannot have the one without the other.

Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John 16:33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Thirdly, I have learned that this life is too hard for me to handle alone. I need Jesus! He holds my hand through every sorrow and promises to wipe every tear from my eyes. He promises to make all things new and right again in the end. We are just travelers in this world and this is not our home.

Finally, I have learned that Jesus understands suffering and in that wondrous way of His, He takes broken things and makes beauty. In the book of Isaiah 53:3, Isaiah said about Jesus:

“He was despised and rejected—
a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.”  

And again in chapter 63 verse 3, Isaiah writes “To all who mourn in Israel, he will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair.”

Jesus’s suffering paid the debt for our sin and turned us from enemies of God to sons and daughters of God; creating beauty and hope from suffering and death! This is my hope when caring hurts!

Kathryn Forsyth

Kathryn Forsyth

Kathy is a blogger, retired nurse, and mom of six children ages 28 to 16.She is on a quest to find joy, meaning, and fulfillment in her life despite having chronic health conditions.Fellow seekers are welcome to join her on this exciting life journey.
Kathryn Forsyth

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  • I’m also familiar with compassion fatigue Kathryn. It’s real. Brene Brown reminds us that when we numb our pain we also numb our joy. As you said, “The difficult events allow the wonderful events to shine more brightly. You cannot have the one without the other.” It’s often difficult to find this balance in a culture that has taught us to put others first. Our mistake is thinking that means to put ourselves last, or worse, ignoring ourselves all together. Thanks for sharing part of your journey and reminding us that Jesus has overcome the world.

    • Kathy Forsyth

      Thank you, Debby, for reading and responding. I like that quote from Brene Brown. May God bless you!

  • Kathy Forsyth

    That is so true. When I try to do things in my own strength it is not possible and I have to keep reminding myself over and over to let God carry the pain and burden. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. God Bless You!

  • Thank you for being vulnerable in telling us your story. I can’t imagine all the sorrow you had to endure between your own difficulties and those of being a nurse. I’m so glad you have found peace and hope in Jesus because of who he is and what he did and still does by interceding for us. “Jesus’s suffering paid the debt for our sin and turned us from enemies of God to sons and daughters of God; creating beauty and hope from suffering and death! This is my hope when caring hurts!” Many blessings to you and may God reward your quest of finding beauty out of ashes.

    • Kathy Forsyth

      Thank you,Gayl, for reading and responding to my story.

  • Yes, we can all learn from your experience. We do need to remember to take care of ourselves or we will be of no good for our loved ones for the long haul. It is like the oxygen mask in the airplane it goes on us first. This has been a very big challenge for me as I have tried to avoid the compassion burnout while caring for my loved ones.