John Pavlovitz wrote, “Compassion isn’t supposed to be a liability to us, it’s supposed to be the default setting of our hearts.” So, as I read about the emergency room doctor in New York who had committed suicide after treating patients sick with COVID-19, I was reminded of the price of deep compassion.
This pandemic has already taken many lives, but when physical safety is restored for most-the emotional repercussions and psychological exhaustion for the helpers will remain. We have entered a new type of time dependent process; it is called radical acceptance of vulnerability. Medical, behavioral health, and all essential workers are witnessing deep suffering while co-existing with their own radical vulnerability. It is a persistent and unfathomable reality that creates a conflict between ethical principles they live by and fear of death by exposure to the virus. This battling of co-existing leads to a profound powerlessness that even the most experienced professional can’t shake. It may start with chronic fatigue, a derealization, a lack of feelings/empathy, insomnia, and feelings of hopelessness. This chronic exposure to extreme circumstances creates patterns of compartmentalization and family or interpersonal relationships suffer. When the relationship with self, professional identity and loved ones become increasing fragile, depression can occur.
This letter serves two purposes, first, to shed light on how a capable, confident medical professional can suffer and ultimately take her life. Second, is to encourage those that care for essential workers to give them their attention via deep listening and reflective listening. Peter Gomes, a Harvard biblical scholar, suggests going beyond the noise of the world and exploring the thin places or silence where those who suffer dwell. Active listening is a remarkable tool for healing. For example, The Secondary Traumatic Stress Network trains everyday people in Psychological First Aid to listen to the stories of service workers on the front line who bear witness to the traumatic experiences of others. Listening interventions like Psychological First Aid have been used as clinical debriefing tools to assist aid workers in processing what they heard for decades. You don’t need to be an expert to help someone heal, you just have to listen and ask what you can do to ease their suffering. Therefore, it is not compassion that kills, it is the absence of a healthy regenerative process, when the helper can show and share their pain so it can be transformed into connection. There is no fixing suffering, just transforming it.
April Knight was raised in West Tisbury, and is a doctoral candidate of international psychology with a concentration in organizational systems. She has been a counselor on Martha’s Vineyard for 20 years.