Time to Say Goodbye
By: Rachel Meneghini, MSW
It is quite amazing the transformation a mere nine months can make on a graduate social work student. Maybe it is the all day Saturday classes, the incessant reading of journal articles, or the beginning stages of carpal tunnel that turn a bright-eyed, perky graduate social work student into a red-eyed, frazzled graduate social work student. There is talk about burnout within the profession, but what about burnout from school? I personally went from “I love graduate school—there is so much to learn,” to “I need a beer.”
It is not uncommon to hear students talking between classes about the stress in their lives. One friend of mine shared that her husband told her that she never spent time with him anymore, and she spontaneously burst into tears. A second friend shared that she had to tell her husband, “Do NOT talk to me tonight. I am too busy. You can talk to me tomorrow.” In fact, in an informal poll of my classmates, students feel so guilty for not spending time with their significant others that the compromise is sitting in silence on the couch doing homework while the significant others watch TV. It is the new date night.
With all of this stress, it is no wonder that students just want to be done with their field placements; they want their lives back. But when a student is running toward graduation like someone running from a house fire, closing with clients can too often be overlooked. Even if a student does not have the “get me out of here” mentality, graduation may seem further away than the Packers winning the Super Bowl. Either way, students in field need to pay attention to the needs of their clients when closing.
I had the amazing opportunity to do my field placement with refugees and asylees at the Center for Victims of Torture in the Twin Cities. The conversation usually stops here when I tell people that I work with torture survivors, which is severely ironic, since torture is used as a silencing technique and makes its victims feel isolated. And because of the personal nature of torture, our clients have difficulty trusting others and forming new relationships. So, when I meet with my clients, this is the main goal in our sessions. To then turn around a few months later and say, “I am graduating. You will be working with a new social worker,” is terrifying. Clients respond with, “Don’t you like working with me?” “Are you going to forget me?” and “Why don’t you just get a job here?”
Change and transition can be particularly challenging for trauma survivors, but it is important to make sure you properly terminate with any population that you work with. In my seminar class, the topic of closure was discussed. Many students shrugged off its importance either because they worked with young children who “will never remember me” or with involuntary clients who “will be happy to see me go.” This I can understand, but it is still important for students to practice these skills and recognize their importance in their practice. Even among co-workers, closure is necessary.
I personally am running toward the proverbial light at the end of my graduate school tunnel. I am busy looking for jobs in this bleak economic climate. I am icing my carpal tunnel, and all the while I am still attempting to read those incessant journal articles. But first, I have a few easy tips for fellow soon-to-be (but not soon enough) graduates.
When Closing With Trauma Survivors
Remember that termination begins at the beginning. Take a few extra minutes in your first few sessions to explain what being a student means and that you are “in the classroom” when you are with a client. Often, the first few sessions are too scary to retain all of that information. Comprehending what nine months from now will look like is difficult for a nervous trauma survivor trying to comprehend what the present looks like. New clients are consumed with thoughts like, “What if she doesn’t understand me?” and “Can I trust her?” not “I’ll be excited to work with someone new.” If I could go back, I would have introduced my clients to my supervisor on more than one occasion and reminded them that she is the one that they will be working with when I leave. Also, when you know the official date of your last day, let your clients know. Some students either think, “My last day is far away,” or “I’m dreading termination,” and they put it off. Put your client’s feelings first, and tell them right away.
Do not let your personal burnout with school prohibit proper closure. Even if you hated your field placement or your clients have drained every ounce of empathy you have, this is an opportunity to practice your skills. Posttraumatic stress disorder and major depression can overwhelm trauma survivors. They may not show their attachment to you when they call to cancel appointments or won’t return your phone calls, but do not underestimate your value in their lives. Underneath the PTSD or MDD, there is a human being who needs the proper time to mourn your loss and prepare for a new stage in his or her life. War survivors often have not had opportunities to say good-bye to a loved one who has died suddenly. Early preparation for termination allows clients time to share their feelings with you in a healthy, healing manner.
Inevitably, there will be “yuck.” It is natural instinct to want to cheer someone up who is sad. One client tearfully asked me, “How will you know what happens to me and my family?” I was ready to give her my address, phone number, e-mail address, and parent’s address in order to contact me. (That was a hyperbole.) Just remember that it is okay to sit with clients in the “yuck” of your departure. Identify the feelings in the room. Share how you, too, do not like saying good-bye. Trauma survivors may feel as if their lives are a series of losses and disruptions. This may be a good time to go back and review your work together, highlighting both large and small successes.
Closure is for you, too. Social workers can be too humble sometimes. Let clients take the time to tell you about the impact you have made in their lives. Take in the praise clients and even co-workers give you. Praise and compliments, and even negative feedback, can be used as gas for your social work tank to keep you moving on your career path.
This is also the time for you to share your thoughts with clients about the progress they have made and the impact they have had on your life. It would not be appropriate to tell clients that you love them, but it may be appropriate to say, “I won’t forget you. I know you will find success in your life because you have so much potential.” This very well may be the last time you see your clients, so send them off with one last push of genuine encouragement.
Facilitate the transition to a new social worker. I literally took a client into the office of the next social worker he will be working with. Allow yourself enough time to ease the client into change. With my African clients, I like to use an elephant analogy. I explain, “I am like a mama elephant. I am very protective of my young. And I am comforted by knowing that, when I am gone, the other mama elephants will be equally protective.” (This is also particularly fitting because most of our staff is female.) This helps make the client feel a part of a family unit. It also makes me feel better, because I do not feel as if I am abandoning people who have given me their trust.
Rachel Meneghini received her Master of Social Work from the University of Minnesota in 2009 after completing her field placement with the Center for Victims of Torture. She currently works with adults with severe and persistent mental illnesses and hopes to continue working in the mental health field with diverse populations.
This article appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER (Vol. 17, No. 3).