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Julie Fanning LCSW

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Social Work and Professional Grief

Hello!  Happy Spring.  I’m in completely into my “I am not wearing socks until next winter” season.  I don’t care if it 46 degrees out – tomorrow is May and I’m not giving in.

Here is my April MSW online blog post about Social Workers and dealing with clients and loss.  The original link is http://mswonlineprograms.org/2016/social-workers-and-professional-grief/

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.

candle

 

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Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!  I just want to wish everyone joy and prosperity for the new year!  My wish for you is that you do that one thing you have been wanting to do.  Take that chance, live that dream, believe in yourself.  I want you to remember that you are worthy of love happiness.

I also want to share the link for my MSWonline blog post  – Social Work and Spirituality!

MSW online blog – Social Work Practice and Spirituality

 

Enjoy each moment!

You are a Tea Pot. (Guide to self-care for Social Workers and Everyone else!)

For my September mswonline post I wrote about self-care.   Imagine you are a tea pot.  It is vital you refill so you can share more tea.  For some tips on self-care click on over and tell me what you think!  I hope fall is treating everyone wonderfully and you are finding moments of joy and peace.

 

You are a Tea Pot. Self Care for Social Workers and Everyone Else!

 

 

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June MSW Online Blog Post – Tips for Social Workers Helping a Distressed Client

June is almost over and I am just now getting around to my June MSW online blog post.  Since it is geared for new social workers or those interested in being social workers I thought tips for helping a distressed client could be helpful.   I think they are great tips.  I use them regularly with clients.   Hmmmm.  That being said,  I have done poorly using 4 out of the 5 tips with my work and personal relationships this past week.  I guess I really do teach what I most need to learn.

Hoping everyone is finding moments of joy each day!

 

Helping the Distressed Client – Tips for New Social Workers

 

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Life is meant to be lived not endured…

Hi everyone,Taking My Own Advice

I am a contributor to a blog that is for those entering or in the social work field.  My first post is titled life is meant to be lived – not endured.  I think the tips for living life can be helpful for anyone.  Click on over and check it out!  Thanks.

http://mswonlineprograms.org/2015/life-is-meant-to-be-lived-not-endured/

Oh — And Happy Social Worker month to all of the social workers out there!

It is a movie. I liked it.

This is a little different from what I normally write but I noticed I was having an emotional reaction to people’s opinions regarding the movie American Sniper.  One of the best ways to process an emotional response is to express it – so here I am.

I read several blogs and watched a couple of video segments on critiques of the movie.  Mostly negative and scathing.  I kept wondering – “What movie did you all see?”  Then I realized many of the segments started with “I didn’t see the movie and I don’t intend to…”  Oh.   Random Pet Peeve:  Shredding apart a movie you have never seen.  Go see it and then shred apart to your heart’s delight.

It dawned on me that of course everyone takes something different from the movie.  What we get out of a movie or music or art or a book is really about us and who we are.  It isn’t about the movie at all, so in essence we all did watch a different movie.

As an overview, I do not believe we should have been fighting in Iraq.  At the same time I respect and honor the military and their families that sacrificed to do as their country asked.  I am proud of my brother who served in Iraq and won’t diminish the soldiers sacrbigstock-War-and-Peace-Conflict-Concep-46628032ifice by indicating that military members are all blood hungry, glory hounds incapable of seeing ambiguity.  Before I saw the movie I had no idea Chris Kyle even ever existed.  I only went because I had the day off and my Aunt said “I have to go pick up tickets at the movie theater – want to see a movie.”  A movie – as in entertainment.  A movie that I’m pretty sure wasn’t supposed to be an end all/be all documentary of snipers in the Iraq war. I actually laughed out loud when I saw the quote about Americans going to the movie as a patriotic act.  What?  The writer might be over-thinking it some.  I’m pretty sure people aren’t sitting around thinking “I could donate to a veteran’s clothing drive but hey – going to see American Sniper is the same thing.  Boy aren’t I patriotic.”

I will say out loud that I actually liked the movie.  I was a bit dismayed to see that Clint Eastwood directed it because in the political belief world I’m pretty sure Mr. Eastwood and I are not only  at opposite ends of the Spectrum, I suspect we are on different spectrums entirely.  Of course – it doesn’t matter who created the movie – I often say if our beliefs won’t stand up when people question them – how solid are they to begin with.

What did I get out of the movie?   War is fucked up.  Yep.  That is it.  War is fucked up.  People are placed in fucked up situations.  People are expected to do Fucked up things. Sometimes in the situation people will say and do even more Fucked up things.   After they are done and go home – people are expected to go on with their lives and their families as if none of the Fuckedupness happened.  That is what I got out of the movie.

One complaint I have read several times is that the movie is too black and white.  (Ironically actually, since many of the critiques of the movies were very black and white!)  Complaints of the movie said it depicted that all Iraqis were evil and the Americans all good.  Definitely a bit of that.    One thing the movie did do was show how the one Iraqi had been an Olympic athlete, hinting that hey – these are just people too.  Again – it is a movie.  No movie no matter how excellent can cover each and every nuance of a situation.

I suspect that the troops in country would necessarily have to have some type of black and white belief.  Don’t tell me that people who choose the military are sociopaths.  There are likely sociopaths at your work, in your neighborhood and even in the military.  However, all the military people I have met are people who love their families, their lives and their countries.  How would someone who has a conscience and empathy justify killing people if there wasn’t some distancing and some extreme good vs. evil thinking?  Could you do it?

It remindedPTSD - Magnifying Glass on Old Paper. me that as a society we often forget why soldiers struggle so much when they come home.  Trauma and PTSD are real and prevalent and it seems like one of our society’s tenets is that “bygones should be bygones” It is over and done with so people can get over it already and move on.  Unfortunately, life doesn’t work like that.  Often, members in the military do not seek assistance because it seems weak and there is such stigma for a soldier to see help.  A movie like this can remind people that the experiences for military individuals doesn’t end when they come home.  It many times never ends.  The movie showed the main character even talk to what I presume is a therapist at the VA.  How awesome is it to give permission to a soldier that talking to a therapist might actually be helpful (gasp!)  It would be so easy or neat in real life but the thought was there.

The movie spotlighted the struggles families have.  Not just the soldier dedicates their life and time to the military – their family is connected too and often not by their choice.   The movie showed how even when the military member returns home – life doesn’t just go back to what the family considers normal.

As much as I – with my peace sign tattoo and all – want a world where human rights are protected and we see everyone as part of one human world and there is no war – we aren’t there yet.  I will continue to work and advocate for better lives for people but as many of the critiques said – Life is not black and white.  American Sniper as well was not all good or bad.   Life is ambiguous and full of both pain and joy.  Keep writing and speaking about the things that are important to you and as I will also try – work on being OK with ambiguity and that there can be value in ideas and beliefs that may not be congruent with your own.

 

Free therapy for veterans  of Iraq and Afghanistan and their families. www.giveanhour.org
Free therapy for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. http://www.giveanhour.org

 

 

 

 

Happy New Year

I didn’t write much for this blog the past few months.  I can’t really give you a reason why because I had ideas.  A couple blogs on kindness, one on listening, one on taking chances and one on not wishing time away.  I even had stories to go with each idea but never got around to putting the words down.  Well – I guess there is time to get those down this year.

For now I want to wish you a happy new year.  I think this is one of my favorite holidays because I like the idea of starting anew.  I wish for you to remember that you can’t change the past but you can always start anew –  on any day – not only  January 1st.  My hope is that if you would like to do something differently – live differently- that you have the perseverance, the hope and belief to sustain you.

For this New Year – I wish you to recognize and live in your moments of joy.  I wish for you to connect with others by allowing vulnerability.  I wish for you to keep going despite your fears or tiredness.  I wish for you to forgive yourself for that which you cannot change.  I wish for you to embrace your path and life to the fullest. –  I think I wish that for me too.

Happy New Year!

 

 

Believing the Worse

I’ve heard that most of us need 4 positives for each negative we hear.  I wonder why it is difficult for so many of us to hear the good things.  I think we often just disregard the positive things.  For example let’s look at two different emails I’ve received from clients.  The first email was after meeting someone one time.  The email basically said that she wanted to cancel her next appointment.  She said she didn’t think I was kind.  She thought I didn’t know what I was doing and that I shouldn’t be a therapist.

I read this and I take it to heart.  (Which is against one of my main principles for all of us – “Don’t personalize anything.”)  Although, in my role of a therapist, it is helpful and necessary to self-evaluate and have self-awareness.   Ideally I would read an email like this, process the feedback.  Keep and learn from what is valuable and discard what is not helpful.  I would not obsess or take it to heart, affecting how I feel about myself.

The second email I received was from a client that I saw several times and had not seen at the time of the email for a few months.  This email said that the client felt like our counseling sessions were extremely helpful.  She was able to change her thinking patterns.  She had accepted some situations in her life and completely opened up other doors.  It was a very positive email thanking me for the help.

I read it.  Most people like to hear that people like them or they did a good job and I am no exception.  I took a moment or two to preen.  Then, I found myself discounting the praise.

Interesting.  How often do I discard the positives and take to heart the negatives.  How often do you do that.  Many of us have some negative messages running around our brain a lot of the time.  Negatives we hear fit right into those messages so we grab on to them.  Positives challenge those negative messages and we discard them.  I’m going to try to make an effort to believe the positives I get and not take negatives as the absolute truth.  Maybe try to believe the positives and see how your feelings about yourself shift.

Use Your Imagination

Imagination
Imagination

My client said “Never” and laughed and laughed and laughed when I asked her “Have you ever pretended you were a spy?” I have.   I wasn’t trying  to get my client to play ‘spy’ with me (although play is important too.)  I was making a point about imagination.  I encourage cultivating imagination in children because children who have an imagination are often more resilient.  Being able to picture a different outcome or a different life can be hopeful.  If a person is bullied or sad but can picture a scenario where that is not the case – this is hopeful.  It bodes well if a child can picture situations where they are cared about and valued.  Kids can even practice social skills and building relationships using imagination.  (What?  Julie you come up  the craziest things you think.)  Think about it as practice like role playing or imagining a situation in your head like adults do all the time.

Unfortunately, I think this is a skill people can lose as they become adults.  People would think I’m stranger than I am if I spoke to an imaginary friend all the time.  However,  the ability to imagine what ifs and the ability to imagine being loved or being happy or achieving your dreams – can be so very beneficial.

My advice to you is to practice using your imagination.  It will be so worth it.

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