It has been a while since I’ve posted anything. My summer has mostly consisted of getting back into jogging (I’d like to say running but frankly it’s a slow jog that gives the other patrons of the park plenty of time to notice my sweaty, tomato-red face. It may look like I ran a marathon but I didn’t come close), building up my vegetable garden, procrastinating studying for my preliminary exams in August, and work. Things were going along with relatively few hiccups until about 3 weeks ago when my work world crashed and burned.
Three weeks ago today, I received a call from a fireman calling from my employee’s cell phone. One of my clients had passed away overnight (natural causes) and the employee who found the client was too distraught to speak to me on the phone. Naturally I called my supervisor and we all rushed to the program. As you can imagine that morning was a chaotic rush of communication with coroners, family members, employees, staffing agencies to cover staff time off for recovery, etc. After everyone left the program I cleaned the client’s room so that none of my staff would have to do it while they were grieving. Times like this are difficult in work settings because my reactions have to come last. First I have to support my clients with managing their emotions and then I have to support my staff with managing their emotions. Only once I was alone in the client’s room did I finally get to experience my emotions and have a nice cry.
I have lost clients before (my population dies, on average, 25 years earlier than the general population) and the loss of this client did not count as my most traumatic experience with client death. Nonetheless, I was very fond of the client we lost and had always felt a special connection with her. She was a client of mine in the job that I had before my current one. When she entered our program I met her family and realized that we were neighbors when I was a child. Due to the age difference between me and the client we didn’t know each other back then. However, it was very likely she saw me riding my bike or playing in the front yard at some point. The client had gone through some major struggles but had been doing wonderfully in the past several months. The family said the client was acting the way she did years ago when she was healthier. That made her death particularly poignant. To struggle for so long and work so hard to be healthy, only to pass away before getting the opportunity to fully enjoy your health is tragic. She had so much more to give the world.
Three weeks later my staff is still grieving her loss. The other client in the home has many questions and is struggling with being without roommates. The employee who found the client is having difficulty processing everything and has taken time off to cope with the experience. The program is just trying to stay above water. I’m struggling to reconcile two sides of myself: the social worker side who wants to be infinitely patient and understanding vs the administrative side of me who has to make sure that the remaining client is taken care of and the program continues to run as smoothly as possible. The temptation to treat your employees as clients is strong at times like this. The therapist in me wants to provide counseling and treatment but a good supervisor has to realize where the boundaries are. I can’t be their therapist – that is not my role in their lives. I can be supportive and understanding but the needs of the program also have to be kept in mind and balanced.
The loss of a client is never easy. I don’t know if our clients ever realize how much we care about them. I still think about some of my clients from my first social work job and worry about how they are doing. When a client passes away you always wonder – could I have done anything different that would have changed this outcome? The first client I lost nearly broke me – the circumstances surrounding the finding of that client’s body were horrible. I had trouble with flashbacks and intrusive thoughts for several months. I blamed myself for the death and was convinced I could have changed the outcome somehow if I had just been a better social worker, a stronger clinician, checked on the client more often, etc. Each time I lose a client, a part of me flashes back to the loss of that first client. It took me a long time, and help from some amazing supervisors, to heal from that experience.
Now I want to be the amazing supervisor who helps their employee through a traumatic experience. I’m worried I don’t have what it takes. I’m worried the program will continue to spiral down and I won’t be able to save it. I’m worried about a lot right now.
(Did I mention I have a massive 4 hour examination about statistics and research in 14 days and if I don’t pass it that I can’t continue with my doctoral program? No pressure)
Oh, and I’m making the featured image for this post my (still growing) puppy because he is silly and make me laugh. He is super long when he stretches out!