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Death and Dying, A Casualty of the Counseling Profession

I lost a client today.  This is not a new experience for me or for many counselors I know; it is a casualty of working in mental health.  Their death was not a surprise, and yet I still find myself surprised. 


This is a difficult profession.  We work with individuals, sitting with them discussing their

most intimate thoughts and emotions.  If we do our job well, we will be honored enough to be emotional upon learning we have outlived a client.  And still, I find myself questioning whether it is appropriate that I am sad.  As an educator, we caution our social work students against caring too much for our clients.  Countertransference.  My client died, and I am sad.  I do not think that makes me less of a practitioner. 


I remember when I was in my 20’s.  I watched my father’s neurologist crying as he sat with my father, holding his hand; the doctor was watching my father dying from brain cancer, and powerless to help.  I found it shocking that this medical PROFESSIONAL would be doing something as human as crying.  How tragic that the field of healthcare has become so professional as to eliminate emotions from best practices.  This doctor provided my father with phenomenal healthcare, and I believe if someone asked my client, they would say the same. 


While it is appropriate to have strong dividing lines of appropriateness between counselor and client, I also believe that we, as professionals, can be emotionally invested in our clients without crossing the line.  Without that emotional investment, counselors could be replaced by any artificial intelligence system around.  Hell, we could be replaced by a magic 8-ball.  It is our caring, it is our love for watching our clients thrive, that helps us help our clients. 


Good counselors are excited for their clients when they realize a success they have been striving for.  We grieve with our clients when they suffer a setback.  While we may not hold these emotions front-of-mind as they do, I believe it is essential to being a good clinician to be emotionally present in session. 


I lost a client today who, if I met them personally before I met them professionally, I would have hoped to be their friend.  So I mourn.  I feel lucky to have met and worked with this person. 


I am honored to have worked with this person in any capacity, and I know the world is a little poorer for losing them.  I mourn privately because, due to the nature of our work, it is unlikely their family knows I exist.  For me to engage in the act of camaraderie with people mutually grieving would be to waive their confidentiality.  So I sit alone, in my office.  I miss their smile, I miss their stories.  I miss working with them to figure out their life’s burdens.  As counselors, we do not typically get that final goodbye when a client passes on.  And for that, today, I am sad.

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