Writing from the Heart: Compassion fatigue

Why do we help each other, and what exactly are we getting from it?


A few years ago, a friend of ours was diagnosed with a rare blood disease. We didn’t even have to do a meal train. We were on it before anyone asked. His wife was still working, so every weekend I made a batch of soup or a pot of chili, or something else that would feed them for a few days. I think I did this for about six months.

I cooked through COVID, and I remember instead of going in and hanging with them for a bit, all I did those days was drop stuff off. We’d wave to each other from their kitchen door and I’d leave and drive to my healthy life.

I really can’t remember when I stopped. And worse, why I stopped. It wasn’t as if he were getting any better. In fact, he was getting worse.

Still somehow the habit, the ritual dried up. I don’t know if I got distracted. Or something happened in my life, or if subconsciously I felt everything suddenly was OK. I honestly can’t remember. But maybe on some level, I felt I had done my bit. I’d secured my place in heaven. Maybe I rationalized, I’m only one person.

Then the other day, having not seen my friend for some time, she wrote to me about something random. And I wrote back and asked how she was. “I just came back from the hospital,” she responded, “I had pneumonia.”

OMG, I thought. This poor kid. I got out the ingredients, made soup, waited a day for it to get good, and delivered it. Her gratitude filled my heart, but my guilt almost canceled it.

I’ll start again, I thought. I wondered, What made me stop in the first place?

I was catapulted back to when my son Dan was diagnosed with MS. Everyone we knew called and wrote and arrived with food and books and advice (too much advice) and love. Huge amounts of support and love. “It takes a village” had ceased being a nice slogan. It became our salvation.

As things got harder, a village wouldn’t have been enough. I needed a whole country, a completely new continent.

But then something interesting happened. The support diminished. The food stopped. The visits ended. It was almost as if there was this invisible underlying message; you’re still sick? What do you want from me? I’m not a miracle worker. I did my bit. I’m only one person.

Of course, that is my projection. I can’t imagine that that’s what people were actually thinking. But that’s what it felt like.

There were the ones who never abandoned us. And as Dan got sicker, they upped their support. They made more food. They invited Dan to their homes even more often. They held us even tighter.

The question of why we help interests me. And what do we get out of helping? Many of us know the obvious — it makes us feel good about ourselves — and maybe the unobvious — it helps our immune systems, helps us cope with stress. And there’s always the “there but for the grace of God” thing.

There was one study where when female college students were asked to complete challenging math tasks, their heart rates went soaring up. But when they were given a friend to do the same tasks their heart rates actually went down.

That crystallizes for me that wanting to help and actually helping really comes down to friendship.

And even though I haven’t read a study with actual data, I just feel that when you’re the friend, the feeling of giving is even better than getting.

So, again, why did I stop?

Maybe I had compassion fatigue. Maybe I got triggered by his illness that reminded me of how it was with Dan, that frustrating feeling of the inability to fix things, make them better.

But then I realized “what can I do and I’m only one person” is not what it’s about. It turns out a village is made up of many “one persons.”

And that’s me.

And that’s a huge amount.