Although social workers often see the very best of people, there is no doubt that the average worker also sees much sadness and struggle. Some social workers practice among poverty and violence.  Some work with individuals who are physically ill or dying.  It is safe to say that social workers treat an array of people and problems.

This sadness can add up.  I supervise a team of care coordinators who work with individuals who have high acuity of physical and/or mental health needs.  They are transitioning clients from a long term setting into the community.  Although they see lots of success, they encounter loss each day.  They listen to people’s stories which are wrought with loss.  They watch people relapse into addiction.  They watch individuals deteriorate physically and sometimes decompensate mentally.  They have clients die under both expected and unexpected circumstances.  This can be wearing on workers.  When we experience loss we often feel grief.  Grief is one of those uncomfortable feelings we often try to avoid.

Most of us understand personal loss.  Personal loss includes things like a death of family or a loved one.  It may be loss of a pet, a job or of a dream.  It may be loss of an idea or transition to another stage of life or a divorce.   We deal with personal loss by using our support system and talking about it.  We have rituals and memorials.  We use self-care.  Much of our personal life is seen by people we love so there is support.  It can be somewhat different for professional loss.

Professional loss is what we experience in our work lives with clients.  It is different from personal loss because the relationships are different and often we don’t stop and take a moment to acknowledge and grieve.   Professional losses are often internalized.  It is possible we might go home and say we had a rough day or maybe even say a client died but we can’t share much of our experiences with family and friends so we miss out on the support you would get when family and friends are sharing the loss with you.

Some thoughts to remember about professional grief:

  • Just because you have been doing the job for a while or work in a field where people struggle or die often – doesn’t mean you get used to it. The loss may be expected but it is still a loss.  Make time to acknowledge the difficulties of your job and the loss you experience.
  • Don’t ignore the grief because you are busy. I don’t think there are many employed Social Workers who don’t have much more to do than the time they have to do it.  If one of my workers experience a loss with a client, they still are required to keep working with their other clients, make good clinical decisions, keep up on documentation and so on.  Even though someone is busy, ignoring the grief isn’t helpful.  Just because we push away a feeling for a time doesn’t mean we don’t have to deal with it.  Eventually, the grief catches up to you.  Not ignoring it now will help you be healthier and less prone to burning out at your job later.
  • If you are not acknowledging grief and allowing yourself time to feel, your grief may come out in other emotions You might feel snappy, resentful, guilty or helpless. Besides not being fun emotions it may affect your ability to do your job well.
  • You might judge yourself harshly if your client seems to struggle too much or dies – stop it! Of course, it is a good idea to assess what steps we have taken or missed taking.  Recognizing lessons learned is an important part of maintaining and improving our clinical skills.  However, remind yourself that you make the best decision you can with the information you have at the time.  Social workers aren’t omnipotent and you can’t know every possible outcome.
  • When you continuously work with never-ending loss with clients or you work with clients who die – sometimes it will affect your decision-making skills. For example, the care coordinator I had whose client died, assessed another client who presented similarly.  When this case was discussed with the multi-disciplinary team she was adamant the member not move out to the community.  I asked her, if previous to her experience with the member who died, would she have recommended transition to the community.  The care coordinator said yes.  Make sure you don’t over or under react to situations based on grief on the job.  Talk to your supervisor and colleagues.
  • Know your limitations and – especially if you are a supervisor – be flexible. In the case above, the care coordinator said that she wasn’t at a place where she could work the case for the new client.  I was able to assign to another care coordinator who was at a place to work the case.
  • Take time off if you need it. None of us or indispensable.  No matter how talented and wonderful you are- your job can live without you for a day or two.  If you don’t make time when you need it – it is possible you will get to a point you can’t do your job at all.
  • If you are a supervisor, make your team meetings and yourself a safe place to discuss loss. After I saw the struggle some of my team was having with client deaths, we had an open discussion about our experiences with client loss and a discussion of the feelings and struggles we have.  We also talked about our role in client’s lives and how losing the client affected us.  I did a follow-up training on professional loss and encouraged discussion as well as checking in during supervision.
  • Either individually or with colleagues, you might consider have a ritual or memorial when clients die or there is a particularly hard case. Tell your client’s story to each other and tell your story of the client.  By telling your story, I mean tell about your experiences and reactions to the client’s life.  Talk about how it affected you.  Tell about what endeared you to the client and what were the parts with which you had difficulty.
  • Don’t ever forget self-care. If you don’t care for yourself you will have nothing left to give.  Spend time with your family and friends.  Read some books, listening to music, go hiking, meditate or pray, exercise or play with your pets (which is a big one on my team.)  Self-care makes sure you have the emotional energy to grieve and keep going.

The nature of Social Work is that there will always be loss we are working with.  I remind my team (and myself) that it is worth it.  We witness and help heal people.  That even though there is continuous loss that we listen to people’s stories.  We may not be able to fix everything.  We may not be able to stop a relapse or stop a client from dying, but we have the opportunity to honor their self-determination and really hear their story. That is the gift we give our clients most of all.   Take time to grieve the professional losses so you are able to continue witness and heal those with which we serve.