Professional Grief

Jan 19, 2024

Despite professional expectations, humans are deeply emotional beings that can experience profound grief and loss. In the event of a client terminating service and moving on, it can be difficult for professionals to move on themselves. Social Workers are taught ethical values like boundary setting and avoiding emotional entanglements with their clients, but friendship can often come about with professional services. When providing care and services, professional workers can naturally feel a warmth and fondness for their clients. Social Workers vicariously experience their client’s success, progress, and joy but can also be troubled by their client’s struggles and pain.

Most humans have experienced some form of personal loss through death of a loved one, losing a pet, or going through divorce. Navigating grief is difficult, but a strong support system from family and friends can make grief bearable. However, this process looks different when experiencing professional loss due to complicated factors like confidentiality (Clark, n.d.). Loss in a professional setting is often internalized and not shared with our support systems (Clark, n.d.). Professional loss and grief can feel like an isolating experience, but there are some steps to take to find relief:

  • Take time to acknowledge the loss and your difficult feelings. Suppressing your emotions can make your pain come out in anger, shortness, and inability to care for other clients.
  • Don’t cover your grief with more work. Even when experiencing the loss of one client, social workers continue to work with other clients. Ignoring grief with justifications of being too busy does not make the bad feelings go away. Processing these feelings as they happen can make you healthier and less prone to burnout.
  • Get support from supervisors and colleagues. Sometimes, grief can impair our decision-making skills. Asking other professionals for guidance can help take emotional weight off your shoulders (Strom-Gottfied & Mowbray, 2006).
  • Take time off if needed. Humans are not machines. A few days off to process grief is often needed, and it can be difficult to work as if nothing has changed.
  • Speak to your supervisor about holding a safe space meeting with the rest of your team. Opening up discussion can give workers the opportunity to talk through client loss and their struggles. It can also provide time to discuss their roles in clients’ lives and how our clients affect them. Support from your team and checking in measures are vital (Strom-Gottfied & Mowbray, 2006).
  • Practice self-care. If you are not giving to yourself, you will have nothing to give to others. Spend time with your family and friends. Play with pets. Get out in nature, either with a walk or a hike. Find time to decompress with a book, music, or meditation. Self-care will give you the emotional strength to overcome grief (Strom-Gottfied & Mowbray, 2006).

As our clients move on from services, it can be confusing when professionals experience happiness in tandem with deep sadness. We wish nothing but success and better outcomes for our clients. When the professional relationship is terminated, we also lose a friendship that we invested so much effort and care into. As professionals work through their feelings of loss, it can help to center on the positives of the experience. As we say goodbye, clients may express gratitude and mutual care. Social workers and other professionals may feel peace with the valuable impact and change they made in their clients’ lives.

Here at StandUp for Kids, staff and volunteers create a relationship with our youth built on a foundation of support, guidance, and friendship. As caring advocates, our ideal goal for these young people is to help them to graduate from our services and become independent foragers for their own future. Many of our youth have moved from StandUp for Kids, creating success and better outcomes for their own lives. We celebrate their transcendence from adversity, but we also acknowledge the loss of connection with the youth that has moved on, and the individual impact each youth has made on our organization. This article is dedicated to the remembrance of every youth served, those that were and still are involved with StandUp for Kids.

Written by: Glorie Lara

Reference Clark, J. E. (n.d.) Coping with Professional Grief. Help Starts Here. Strom‐Gottfried, K., & Mowbray, N. D. (2006). Who heals the helper? Facilitating the social worker’s grief. Families in Society, 87(1), 9–15.