Goodbyes and endings need careful planning and time to grieve

Change is hard and being prepared for relationships ending - be they with service users or colleagues - can help ease the transition

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Social work has always been about endings, whether it be a case closing, someone moving into residential care, or the death of a client. In my career I’ve closed hundreds of cases, waved goodbye to many clients (and colleagues), changed jobs regularly and attended funerals.

I was a bit perturbed when I found myself affected deeply by the end of my most recent job. All that work on attachment theory may have benefited the people with whom I worked, but it hadn’t prepared me for my own thoughts and feelings. Despite knowing my departure date some weeks beforehand, I was in bits on my final day. I couldn’t say cheerio to service users without crying, and I confess I actively avoided some colleagues because I couldn’t face saying goodbye.

Emotional impact

For days afterwards I was depressed and weepy. I missed the service users but also my colleagues; the team I’d worked with for over two years, who had me in stitches on a regular basis, and who shared the challenges of ever-smaller resources and growing mountains of paperwork.

I had believed I was unflappable and stoic with goodbyes and endings. I had always been very careful when working with service users to discuss timescales and boundaries. I believed I had dealt with relationships and ended cases sensitively and honestly. I’d kept in touch with colleagues from previous jobs too. But I hadn’t considered the emotional impact this particular ending would have on me. Is it because I’m getting older – a dawning realisation of my own mortality – or because I’m just going soft?

I started to think about how we as social workers can better prepare ourselves for the ending of working relationships. I’ve talked to colleagues who have acknowledged that they’ve found similar situations difficult. Planning is undoubtedly crucial. Social work involves establishing relationships with people, or service users, in times of crisis. We intervene at a time of great imbalance and disempowerment. Our aim is to build a relationship based on trust, enablement and respect. Just as we place so much emphasis on establishing productive and open relationships at the beginning of our work, so we must ensure that the endings are carefully planned too, not only for service users but also for ourselves.


To acknowledge the difficulty in transition is vital for our own mental health and survival. I’m sure many of us have experienced the wrench of moving jobs at least once. Change is difficult. It doesn’t matter who we are or what we do.  Allowing ourselves to feel emotion is also vital. More importantly, accepting that our emotions are valid is crucial. I found talking about how I felt difficult at first. I felt foolish and a fraud. The reality was, I was grieving a loss.

So, how can we avoid or at least, limit, the impact endings might have on us as social workers? Talking in supervision (or with colleagues) is undoubtedly useful. With hindsight, I think I should have done this as soon as I knew I was leaving. Once my initial period of grieving had abated, and I had settled into a new job, I was able to discuss my experiences with new colleagues. It has been helpful for me to recognise that what I felt was not unique, or weak, and indeed that many of my co-workers have experienced very similar feelings. I have since suggested peer supervision to create a more supportive environment in which to raise such topics which has been received positively. I’ve raised grief, loss and change as issues for reflective practice within the team.

Grieving an ending or loss is not a sign of unprofessionalism, or of having blurred boundaries. It’s a sign of being human.

The author is a social worker based in the north west of England. 


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3 Responses to Goodbyes and endings need careful planning and time to grieve

  1. Mary August 10, 2017 at 9:58 am #

    I found leaving my job before last to be so distressing that I felt I was in mourning afterwards. and that feeling stayed with me for a long time. I was broken by the time I left due to management actions, and burned out. I was distraught at leaving so many wonderful colleagues and service users, who I still keep in contact.

    What we tend to forget about work is it defines us and some jobs and people get under your skin in both a positive and negative way. I sobbed my way through my leaving speech and I felt I had been sucked punch by my reaction to leaving. I can never put into words how I felt and still feel about the role and leaving.

  2. Mike August 14, 2017 at 7:47 am #

    When I walked out of a job after 12 years , all I could think of was the impact of change on myself. I had no idea the impact it would make on others and would urge anyone leaving a job to prepare your colleagues and clients. They are the ones who suffer most .

  3. Ruth Cartwright August 19, 2017 at 2:51 pm #

    Leaving a job is a big change and will usually bring a mixture of feelings, including grief and a feeling of bereavement. The degree to which this affects you at the time and in the future will, I think, depend in part on how and why you are leaving, and whether you feel you have been able to do a good job. You may be leaving for positive reasons and with good memories of a good working environment and great colleagues, and those memories will sustain you. However, this may not be the case. Even if you are leaving a difficult work situation for the sake of your own sanity and wellbeing and are concerned about the welfare of the clients and colleagues you leave behind, you must always be assured that, despite problems, you have done some good for somebody; you have been able to help service users at hard times in their lives, you have been able to listen to and support colleagues, you will have learned much and there will be some positive memories. Use those and your learning to help you cope with the loss and drive you forward in your new role.