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.
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.