When Clients Die: To Cry, or Not to Cry?

Posted by: Siri Brown on January 20, 2012 3:41 pm

The recent holidays reminded me of a time when I returned home from a two week vacation refreshed, rested, and rejuvenated.  Work started at 8:30am; at 8:36am a colleague is in my office, face sombre, eyes welled, asking, “Have you heard?”   A client, survivor of a series of unfortunate hardships, has died in a tragic incident.  My colleague looks at me expectantly, arms hovering, silently offering the need for a hug, and I am flummoxed.  The time, now 8:39am, brings another colleague into view, ready to share the same sad news.  I see both of their expectant faces, waiting for the “typical” response – but though I am saddened by the news (the client was a delightful, generous, unique human being), I am not emotionally devastated, as seems to be expected.  It begs the question:  to cry, or not to cry?

Before one assumes I am either a) heartless  b) “burned out”  or c) in emotional denial, know that I have experienced the loss of many of my clients – an unfortunate side-effect of the clientele I work with – addicts, victims of abuse,  the homeless and the severely mentally ill – and have been flooded with the deepest of emotions.

I have cried. And cried.  And cried some more.   I have been unable to work (or at least well) the rest of the day;  confessionally, for weeks.   But on this particular morning I found myself at an emotional crossroads – feeling one thing, and being expected to feel another.  What to do?

We are taught as clinicians to “honour” where we are at; in fact, we espouse that to our clients on an almost daily basis.  When it comes to how I present to colleagues however, I have found myself  feeling as if I was under a microscope, the unvocalized expectations a powerful challenge to my authentic self.

When we encounter the more intense realities of our jobs – the overdoses, suicides, homicides, self-harms, abuses and traumas – the ways in which we navigate their effects can seem almost as painful as the incidents themselves.  The question that keeps arising is how can we honour our own processes while simultaneously navigating the ongoing expectations of our jobs?

For me, the answers lie somewhere between how we respond as people, and how we respond as professionals.  When faced with tragedy, we prioritize:  what are our professional and ethical obligations?  What are the steps we need to take to help, protect, or advocate for our clients?  We have been trained (and are expected to) appropriately compartmentalize our feelings.  We have been trained (and are expected to) prioritize our clients’ needs.  We are also trained (and expected to) process our own personal reactions in a timely and appropriate manner.  This last piece, I have found, can be one of the trickiest.  I can call an ambulance to collect a suicidal client, but how then do I manage the emotional fallout I experience later than night, once removed from my professional setting?

I have found that by following our professional requirements first, then ensuring we process our own personal reactions second, to be the most ethical process.   Despite the personal challenges that arise as a result of the work we do, I continue to believe that our clients’ needs do, and should, come first.

If I chose not to cry, that is up to me.  If I am unable to stop crying, that is also up to me.  Yes, I am still human – but I have also committed myself to helping others, and that is also up to me.

*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

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