Updated: Jul 1
March, 2017. I was beginning a series of workshops with a group of women in a coffee shop near my house. But let's go back in time a bit more...
The whole concept of it developed from my experience in palliative care. The name Vital Compass was a gift from a dear friend, as I said in the Home page. During my years working in hospital settings in Brazil, caring for patients and families, I realized the importance of caring for health care professionals as well. It was around 2007 when I co-founded Casa do Cuidar (a Brazilian NGO dedicated to education and assistance in palliative care). The program Care for the Care Giver started in 2008. I was pregnant of my daughter, Nina. From then on, the program went to many hospitals across the country. It is also part of our own specialisation course.
Health Care professionals have a hard time asking for help, recognising they are also vulnerable, allowing themselves to take a break and to be cared for.
A lot of professionals have difficulties acknowledging they need rest and they deserve care, not only health care professionals, I know. But in this particular scenario, this reality screams at your face. High levels of Burnout Syndrome and Compassion Fatigue are some of the results of neglecting this situation.
I had experienced some of the symptoms related to both diagnoses above mentioned and at the time, I felt embarrassed by it. I also had to listen to my coordinator telling me that I knew death and dying were the realities of those patients, that I should be better prepared to deal with it, and not feel so much. The same coordinator who told me " I can't understand why you like working with these patients and their families, I could never do it." Talk about empathy, right?
The many years in the hospital taught me a lot about life.
To be validated in my suffering was a lonely process. It was a relief when I found other health care professionals there who felt the same. It was not about being unable to handle the daily witnessing of suffering, but about validating the concept that we could better care for them if we better cared for ourselves.
When I moved to London in 2015, I took the huge challenge of reinventing my life professionally and personally - who would I be when immersed in British culture?
It was a long process full of questions and no answers: if I wanted to work in a hospital setting here, would I be able to? What are the requirements? How long to wait for a working visa (my husband and kids are Brazilian-Italian)? What types of work would I enjoy doing here? And many more.
Listening to other professionals about their struggles strengthened my realization that the Care for the Care Giver Program could attend to those needs also. It was not something bound to the hospital setting. Therefore, I adapted the program in terms of length, format and content. I ended up creating a totally different project, albeit based on the same principles as the other one. Vital Compass became a series of 6 meetings focused on encouraging self-care and self-reflection, developing creativity and exercising mindfulness.
The first experience was with a group of 6 women. We met weekly in a cosy coffee shop in a reserved space. We would order coffee and share important aspects about ourselves, in a safe caring circle. Each meeting brought a reflection. The group would then knit or crochet; some were learning some already knew the techniques (there was some time dedicated to teaching basic skills). And there was a short poem to engage in a mindfulness moment exercise.
It was a lovely process; listening to those women sharing, observing them growing in confidence, offering solace to each other and encouraging reflections that helped their search for meaning and purpose in life.
It was a project that worked by donations. I was still not officially working in the UK. I wanted to do something but I could not do it in the traditional format. This experience taught me about gratitude in a very special way; acceptance of donations is an experience that teaches us to be humble. I have to say that, for me, it was an uncomfortable lesson though it is a virtue I value a lot and I hope I can continue to learn from it.
My personal "vital compass" got adjusted in the process of meeting those women. I really love caring for people, as it helps me care for myself. I enjoy the process of listening to them and accompanying them on their inner journeys. If I had any doubts about continuing my work as a therapist, this experience grounded me in a new way. I also understood that the lessons my patients and their families had taught me in the hospital were crucial in helping me pose uncomfortable questions to the world. Teachers, mothers, economists, politicians, CEOs, fathers, grandparents, farmers, cleaners, they all had the same questions in their last weeks of life, last days for some; they all had the same urgencies - to make meaning out of their lives, make peace with people or situations they had conflict with, be seen as a dignified human being.
The world we are living in makes a great effort to hide death and dying from all of us. No one likes to be reminded that our fragile precious time on Earth has limits. There are some who have so much financial power that they invest in becoming immortal. Those people not only invest money in the external world, but they invest a lot of energy in their own minds in denying this reality and projecting their fears and their weaknesses onto other people, amongst other defence mechanisms they use in order to get rid of death anxiety.
As a society, marketing dedicated to hide aging, death and dying is huge in a symbolic and in a practical way.
In order for us to promote changes grounded in respect and dignity for all human beings, we need to examine ourselves with care and unite in this principle. Every action starts from our self-awareness or lack of it.
Vital compass connects us to our lives and alerts us to the concept that we should live it with meaning and purpose, because, in spite of marketing and the desire to become immortal beings, we are truly simply human beings and we are better, together.