Grief, Loss, Trauma, and Compassion Fatigue

 Animal guardians, advocates, caregivers are not strangers to grief, loss, trauma or compassion fatigue nor do they pretend to be unaffected - but sometimes we are caught off-guard, stuck deep in the mire, innocently unaware how we got there. The good news? Look around! You are in (VERY) good company! This magazine article was first published in April 2019 - ironic what the future was holding for us all... 


Bessel van der Kolk, MD in his best selling book, The Body Keeps the Score:   “We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present.”  

Agreeing on a definition, diagnosis, symptoms, or a recovery timeline that encompasses all is difficult, if not impossible when it comes to the experience of grief. While considering the following, try not to add blame, shame, and if-onlys to your burden.:

  • Know you are not alone or unique in how you feel in your grief. Address isolation as it relates to you. Loneliness is not the same as being alone.
  • Take care of yourself. Try to not neglect or ignore yourself, your family, or your routine.
  • Express newfound emotions, experiences, and insights that occur with each loss, change, or disappointment. Hint: Don’t wait to figure it all out before you share them; they may not make sense until you do discuss them. Covering up or hiding legitimate feelings rarely creates a happy ending, thus our discussion later about compassion fatigue.


In the truest sense of the word… loss is loss, no matter the form it takes. Don’t judge or measure your loss comparing its weight against others - it will only delay the recovery process. If you are talking to another who dares to minimize what you are sharing with them, stop, get up, and leave. They don’t deserve to share this highly valued experience and connection with you. Not today. Besides, trying to explain yourself will result in more drained energy. You can always gather your thoughts and write them first.

“Grief is any distressing emotion (or behavior) that arises out of a change,” according to Sandy Heath, certified grief recovery counselor in San Diego, CA.

Some changes seem impossible to accept, feeling we will never get beyond the difficult emotions and the weight of our grief. If that is the case, a Flower Essence made from Bleeding Heart is incredible for helping the inconsolable. With Essences, time does not matter. Use Bleeding Heart or the others mentioned here to recover from losses inflicted decades earlier. It will work for you and those you are trying to help today.

Flower Essences used for grief and loss include Star of Bethlehem - my single most important remedy, and I am seldom without it - I carried several bottles to the Gulf Region post-Katrina. I use this Essence for emotional shock and trauma, no matter how long ago the experience occurred whether days, weeks, or years. This is exactly why animals with a troubled past are helped so quickly.

Grief in animals can appear as depression, anger, anxiety, impatience, or any multitude of behaviors. Of course, this is normal for any loss or change but if they have not gotten better within a given period of time, then attitude and behavior can be impacted with long-term negative consequences. According to Heath: “We never intentionally inflict our negative emotions on our animals but sometimes they pick up on them and absorb our depression and grief.”  If that has happened, use Essences - especially Gentian flowers, which are great for apologizing to our loved ones.

When an animal has taken the direct hit, so to say, and survived a trauma whether a natural disaster or man-made; they emerge doing the best they can given the circumstances. What I know after 30 years of helping to evacuate, rescue, and care for animals in disasters – they have valiantly tried to be the best they can be – behaving like true heroes – which is absolutely exhausting! Yarrow Flower Essence is the remedy for them!

Traditionally, Yarrow benefits the wounded hero, the warrior to thrive and flourish in hostile environments, albeit the best it can be under the circumstances – but a change for the rescued, displaced, or re-homed animals. Yarrow is excellent for those who are asked to accept unacceptable treatment, behaviors, or environments. Good for sudden changes in environment and violent acts. To some personalities, the change may be as innocent as crating, carrying, transporting, and depositing at a new location. Yarrow (Achilles millefolium) is an intriguing plant with a good amount of written folklore. Legend has it a Centaur taught Achilles and his soldiers to stuff Yarrow leaves into battle wounds to stop the bleeding and to not be drained – bled dry. Used as an Essence we are protected from existing, overwhelming negative conditions. 

Oak and Mustard Essences are wonderful for overturning depression and despair. Oak is for exhaustion from trying to be too strong for too long. Mustard is used when we appear to not be participating with our former enthusiasm. Mustard and Mimulus Essences are good for those who feel resigned to the fact they have no control over their circumstances.

Oak Essence is used by personalities who drive themselves to exhaustion and ill health by an exaggerated drive to work hard, to be the leader – no matter what the personal cost. Oak is for the strong personality that can be a little bossy or pushy in trying to get his own way. This is not all negative as Oak personalities are true leaders and often do know what is best in a given situation.


Shock, troubling information, storms, accidents, confusion, abuse, neglect… the list goes on and on. And that’s one of the biggest problems with trauma and the ‘Lizard brain’ we share with our companion animals – we re-think things, compartmentalizing and creating memories; then we feed off those impacted thoughts and memories dictating our future actions and thoughts. That is where the chronic conditions begin to manifest – in the re-thinking of the event, building and re-enforcing the negative memory. 

Why should we consider Flower Essences at such a dire time in our lives? The goal of using Flower Essences, for this discussion, is to avoid possible mis-behaviors (personality extremes) and remedy existing poor choices as a result from past trauma. And how is it possible this simple, innocuous flower-water can help with acute deep-rooted behavioral problems? The secret is in the plant and its behavior. For more information, consider referring to the explanations and case studies in my 2013 book: “Helping Humans One Animal at a Time.”

Re-balancing emotionally in the aftermath of earthquakes, being (very) close to hurricanes and tornadoes, evacuated from several wildfires where embers once melted on the hood of my truck, never proved easy. At the end of each, all I wanted was to ‘steady’ myself – get my balance on terra firma again. But I found myself re-visiting the event, the what-ifs and the if-onlys. Someone pointed out these repetitive thoughts were a form of emotional shock. Years later, I was exhausted while addicted to running from the memories yet obsessed with keeping them alive all at the same time. Someone suggested Arnica Flower Essence.

Arnica as an essence is for emotional relief post-trauma. Cleanses hurtful memories. Helps in reconnecting to life after suffering any loss of security such as an accident. Excellent for the overly sensitive personality and for fear of touch as in cases of abuse. Folklore has it that arnica was first used after people observed mountain goats in the Alps seek out the Arnica plant (reportedly eating it and rolling in it) for relief after suffering an accident or injury. NOTE: Arnica in its natural herbal form is highly toxic to humans and should never be used internally. In homeopathic form, Arnica Montana enjoys a great reputation for alleviating muscle soreness, bruising, and strain due to overexertion. Those in need of Arnica often do not recognize their exhaustion and continue on in a state like shock, often to greater injury.

****Burnout (exhaustion) tends to be chronic and generalized, whereas compassion fatigue is acute.

Burnout can occur without empathy and compassion, but compassion fatigue cannot.****

COMPASSION FATIGUE = Secondary (or Systemic) Traumatic Stress 

Interrupting the repetitive pattern of thinking, replacing the mental cycle with healthier thoughts sooner rather than later. Why this is important is explained in detail in “The Body Keeps the Score. Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” written by Bessel van der Kolk, MD, where he states: “We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present.”

Traumatic stress is the need to manage a crisis or the memory of a traumatic crisis. Animal caregivers experience at least five crises a week—sometimes all in a single day. (Source: Humane Society of the United States,  The industry of animal welfare (with health care practitioners and trainers, in my experience, having the greatest influence over the largest numbers) is fraught with wonderful, empathetic, compassionate individuals in varying degrees of burn-out simply because they care too much.

According to the research of Tad Coles, DVM, Overland, Kansas, here are the five phases of compassion fatigue:

“1. Zealot: The caregiver (trainer, health care practitioner, first responder, etc.) is motivated by idealism and ready to serve and problem solve, wants to contribute and to make a difference, volunteers to help and is full of energy and enthusiasm.

  1. Irritability: The caregiver begins to cut corners, avoid client contact, mock peers and clients, denigrate his or her own efforts at wellness, lose concentration and focus and distance oneself from others.
  2. Withdrawal: The caregiver loses patience with clients, becomes defensive, neglects self and others, is chronically fatigued, loses hope, views self as a victim and isolates self.
  3. Zombie: The caregiver views others as incompetent or ignorant; loses patience, sense of humor, and zest for life; dislikes others; and becomes easily enraged.
  4. Pathology and victimization or maturation and renewal. Pathology and victimization result when no action is taken. Maturation and renewal are possible only when the caregiver acknowledges the symptoms of compassion fatigue and takes direct action to overcome it. If the caregiver chooses pathology and victimization, he or she becomes overwhelmed and may leave the profession or develop somatic illness. On the other hand, if the caregiver chooses maturation and renewal, he or she becomes strong, resilient and transformed.”

Resources exist today that were unavailable just a few years ago. Diligence and follow through are essentials. Also, in my experience, we need to look out for each other. We need to have difficult conversations and not shy away when we see friends or colleagues at the early warning signs of compassion fatigue. Get informed. Get involved. Share resources. Together we can find positive solutions. Upon seeing any of the above listed symptoms; seek medical and/or psychological assistance without delay. This is part of what has helped keep me in animal welfare for 45 years, surviving hundreds of lost loves, mine and yours. 

(This article first appeared in THE CHRONICLE OF THE DOG published by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers ( Webinar available on their site: