I have 6 names written in the front of my work diary. 6 children I worked with. They are all no longer with us. They died.
Sooner or later, anyone working with troubled children will experience grief of one kind or another.
Loss comes in many forms…
- Placement change – carers and residential staff can suffer loss when children they’ve cared for move on. Particularly when they’ve been together for a long time; sometimes years.
- Worker change – a youth justice colleague of mine recently had to hand over a case to colleague after working with the child between the ages of 10 and 17. He felt it acutely.
- Case closures – sometimes our work with families naturally comes to an end. The work is finished, change has taken place and we sign off. This is as it should be, but it can still sting.
- Lost potential – sometime we can be impacted by the loss of children’s potential. Suddenly we become aware of how much a child has lost, how big a hill they have to climb – this can be experienced as loss.
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Doubtless there are other occasions where working with troubled children and young people brings us into the realms strong emotion.
We may be grieving and not know it…
One of the tricky things about the impact of our work, is that we are trained to assess and care for others, not ourselves. Busyness and our drive to do the job can cloud our insight into how we’re doing emotionally.
One way of helping alleviate this is to look out for the danger signs. Key to this is knowing yourself. This sounds obvious, but it’s easy to miss the real reasons why our behaviour may be changing.
It helped me, some years ago, when a senior colleague told me that he knows when he’s getting worn down when he starts to drink and smoke more than usual.
This helped me to make some real changes in the way I dealt with the emotional demands of work (See here for more detail on this).
3 “C”s to help us deal better with grief at work:
- Challenge the “capability culture” at work – some work places just aren’t open to the realities of worker grief. There is a prevailing pressure – unspoken but very real – that “we cope” and “get on with the job.” As if feeling grief made us somehow unprofessional! In my view the converse may even be the case – if we feel nothing, how can we do our jobs to the optimum?… So, how do we challenge such work cultures?…
- Cultivate openness with trusted colleagues – finding like-minded colleagues is a massive help. Cut through the “capability culture” by talking more freely with those who’ll understand. Admitting to the impact of loss and the challenge of grieving is nothing to be ashamed of, but can be hard to do. Letting some of the steam out of our feelings can be a massive help and allow us to keep going healthily.
- Constructive use of supervision – good supervision is about worker well-being, as well as accountability, deadlines and responsibilities. If your supervisor doesn’t get this, raise it with them. If that seems unrealistic, then maybe it’s time to change supervisors or discuss it with a more senior person. But for those with empathic supervisors, decide to use supervision as a place where you are more open about your feelings of grief or loss at work.
It’s become my view that we have to be proactive and take responsibility for our own welfare at work.
By doing so, we serve the kids better, strengthen our chances of doing a better job and surviving longer at work.
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Grief is a complex thing. There are a number of different models for understanding it. The first step is to acknowledge that grief at work exists. It’s a very real thing.
Next we must foster greater openness about the personal impact of dealing with troubled children. That starts with you and me being open; first with ourselves, but also with trusted colleagues, then with supervisors.
One sure way to deal with the unspoken reality of grief at work, is to speak about it!
What do you think?
- What are your experiences of grief at work?
- How have you dealt with or helped colleagues to do so?
Please let me know your thoughts – leave a comment or question below or click here.
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© Jonny Matthew 2015