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Cheryl Eckl
Cheryl Eckl

Burn-out in Bereavement

Do you feel fried in grief?

woman with headache

Grieving and Burned Out

Last night my friend and I went to hear Joan Borysenko talk about her new book, Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive (Hay House, January 1, 2011). It was definitely worth the time out of my "very busy schedule" to hear this lovely woman expound on what I thought I already knew about caring people who try to cram 25 hours into a 24-hour day.

Having spent the better part of my adult life working for mission-driven organizations (some of which had perfected burn-out to an art form), I know how parasitic "doing good" can become. Too many worthy causes literally suck the life out of leaders and followers alike—the result being not nearly so much good as one might have hoped. What I hadn't realized is just how many chronic health problems stem from the systemic inflammation of what I call "high-octane stress." Borysenko's presentation was a real eye-opener.

point to watch

Get It Done Now

Perpetually working 80-hour weeks, stressing about never getting to the end of our "To-Do" lists, always being too busy to exercise or eat healthy foods—these are all familiar manifestations of burn-out. And it's not like we don't know when we're flirting with the edge, when we're "doing good badly"—as Borysenko quotes Thomas Moore.

Yelling at other drivers, regularly having a little too much to drink, losing enthusiasm for life, becoming isolated and snarky—we've all been there. Twenty-first century life seems to do that to us unless we push back with awareness of what burns us out, intention to live in the moment, and persistence in following our dreams with a sort of gentle positivity that calls rather than compels our service.

weary man

Worn Out from Doing

We almost seem to expect burn-out in our work-a-day lives. But what about when we're grieving? When nothing is normal, when stress is heightened by the trauma of loss, and when we're probably already exhausted from the special kind of burn-out termed "compassion fatigue."

Even if we're not working too hard, grief can feel like a quadruple whammy. My acupunturist says it's because grief is hard on the kidney and adrenal systems—just like plain old burn-out, except with the additional emotional factor of that giant hole that loss has created in our lives.

It's no wonder we want to get over it. We simply don't have the energy to dramatically grieve our way into a state of healing and harmony. Most likely, we feel that those wells have long since run dry from everything that preceded the sorrow in which we now find ourselves.

So, after failing this morning to gracefully arise with renewed calm and illumined peace from Borysenko's wise words, I remarked to myself over a rushed cup of coffee, "I think I've been fried by grief." Which is a bit like being boiled in oil. Or perhaps it's more like the proverbial question: "How do you cook a frog?"

frog in green

What Hot Water?

Answer: If you drop a frog into boiling water, he'll jump out. But if you place him in a pot of cool water and then slowly turn up the heat, he will unwittingly adapt to the rising temperature until its too late. By then, he's cooked.

The metaphor is all too apt, especially for the bereaved. Whether the loss was sudden or anticipated, we have probably entered grief already exhausted. If we were caregivers—as I was for over four years—the physical, emotional, and psycho-social burdens may have ground us to a nub.

In this state, loss is a relief because, at least, that particular form of "doing" is over. But what I found frustrating when my husband died was that I couldn't seem to turn off the "DO ALL OF IT IMMEDIATELY" switch. I found it nearly impossible to switch into "BE HERE NOW" and just rest.

If the loss is sudden, it is possible that undiagnosed illness (often a result of self-neglect) has escalated to a breaking point that ends in abrupt death or even suicide. And Borysenko says that life-threatening accidents often befall burned-out people whose responses have been dulled by fatigue or who are simply not paying attention.

I can relate. Fourteen years ago I was fortunate to survive a crash that nearly totaled me as well as my car on a two-lane country road in Montana. I was desperately burned out, but driving to pick up my husband at the airport 90 minutes from where we lived. Mindlessly drifting onto the right shoulder and going too fast, I swerved to avoid a mile marker, fish-tailed into a ditch, hit a ramped driveway, and flew 60 feet before landing "kersplat" in an adjacent field with a concussion and a fractured back.

Not all burn-out sufferers are so fortunate. And those of us who are must still resist the temptation (as soon as we heal up from the latest near-miss) to immediately take on another pile of projects—especially if we happen to also be in mourning.

Grief makes us weaker than we realize. And—just like my laborious healing from head and back injuries—it takes longer than we can imagine to come back to the "new normal" that loss necessitates.

Next week: Rising from the Ashes of Bereavement Burn-out: Are you a phoenix or a road-runner?

About the Author
Cheryl Eckl

Cheryl Eckl is the author of The LIGHT Process: Living on the Razor's Edge of Change.

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