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Animal Speak - March 2017 - Santa Fe

Compassionate Self Care: The Path to Wholeness

By Lynne McMahan


"When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves."

-Victor Frankl


Recently one of my friends lost both of her dogs of 14 years within a month of each other. She spent the last year caring for them as their health declined due to aging and other health issues. The care became a twenty four-seven process, researching their treatments, preparing their food, and taking them to a variety of health care professionals both traditional and alternative. She cared for her elderly “kids” as many would an elderly parent or health challenged spouse or partner.


Caring for herself during this time was challenging, but it was important for her to manage her own self care during the process. Having experienced this with my own aging animals and challenged by my own self care, her story inspired me to write about this focus of compassionate self care for caregivers.


I often use the following statement from the airline travel guidelines with my human clients who are working on this theme of self recognition and care, “if you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your oxygen mask first, and then assist the other person." This is true whether we are caring for humans or animals. As mentioned in my own life experience, I have cared for many ailing animals and humans, not always caring for myself as I devoted time to my loved ones' care. For example: getting up in the middle of the night several times to care for my sick children or to feed premature animal babies—dogs, cats, goats; staying in the whelping box while my dog birthed her 10 babies; staying with my horse while his heart valve was failing and his body filled with fluid; or being the primary caregiver for a friend who was dying of malignant brain cancer.


Caring for our friends and human and animal family is what we do. But remembering to care for ourselves along the way must be our initial consideration--putting our oxygen on first by asking ourselves this essential question: how will I stay healthy, and physically, emotionally and spiritually well during this time of caring for others?


In researching for this column and a workshop I will facilitate in March for the wonderful staff members at the Santa Fe Animal Shelter on Self-Care, I found the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project website ( and Patricia Smith's book, Compassion Satisfaction: 50 Steps to Healthy Caregiving. The website shares a helpful definition for compassion fatigue: “compassion fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper” (Dr. Charles Figley, Tulane University).


It is important for the caregiver to "create a self-care plan and translate it into action every day...two kinds of caregiving exist: healthy, and unhealthy or chronic. Healthy caregiving allows us to be present to those in our care. As caregivers, we reap the positive benefits of caring for another human being [and our animal friends]. This process promotes true compassion for others while not taking on the suffering of others as our own" (2012, Smith).


The website shares two helpful lists for the path to wellness and committing to authentic and sustainable self-care. Here are just a few reminders from the lists:

  • Be kind to yourself.

  • Enhance your awareness with education.

  • Accept where you are on your path at all times.

  • Clarify your personal boundaries. What works for you; what doesn't.

  • Do health-building activities such as exercise, massage, yoga, meditation.

  • Develop a healthy support system: people [and animals] who listen well and who care.

  • Live a balanced life: sing, dance, sit with silence.

     (Excerpts from


I want to close with the story of Roxy, who now lives at the beautiful and peaceful Kindred Spirits Animal Sanctuary (KSAS) I have shared in previous columns. Roxy, a mixed breed large dog, was a caregiver for her human, an elderly woman who had to be moved across country to be closer to her human family due to her rapid physical decline. Roxy could not go with her and was brought to the sanctuary this fall to complete her life at KSAS.


To say the least, both Roxy and her human have suffered emotionally and spiritually from their separation, but both are receiving the love and care they need from their caregivers. When I first met Roxy in the fall, she felt lost and deeply sad. Reiki and I worked with her physical, emotional and spiritual well-being, letting her know that her love and her human's love would always be and that Roxy's new family of humans and animals would help her transform her purpose of caregiver from one human to many souls that live at the sanctuary. In my subsequent visits, Roxy has been able to embrace this change of purpose and being and she has become a guide and mentor for Escobar, a very old and bereft pit-bull who is nearly blind.


The following quote nicely states the Roxy she was with her human and the Roxy she is becoming at the sanctuary. “Animals are the bridge between us and the beauty of all that is natural. They show us what’s missing in our lives, and how to love ourselves more completely and unconditionally. They connect us back to who we are, and to the purpose of why we’re here”, Trisha McCagh. (Animal Communicator, Teacher, and Author,

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Lynne McMahan, Ed.D., En-Light-En Reiki, is a Usui/Holy Fire Karuna Reiki® Master and Mind-Body-Spirit Mentor, supporting the healing of each person or animal on their journey of transformation. For more information:,, or 505.400.3168. 

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