I’m including the text of an article written by Rodney Bolejack, DMin, a hospice chaplain, for the Life Care Planning Law Firm Association. While the article is specific to this type of law firm, many social workers in many different fields experience similar feelings for our clients and patients.
Life Care Planning Law Firms are a unique group. Relationships with clients reach far beyond the business side of things. Before you know it, clients become real people with real lives. The client becomes more than a client. You’re not family, but you know them. You them well. You know them personally, either from the uniqueness of their character, their multitude of struggles, or simply because they are just nice folks to work with. You meet them when they are healthy and independent. You know their family adventures, celebrations and woes. You hear about illnesses and financial worries. You witness the onset of dementia. You learn they have elected to begin hospice care.
And when they die, you miss them. You feel their absence in small, and sometimes, in a great way. You may have heard that they struggled with an illness and expected their death. Or, you may receive a surprising phone message that tells you of their death. Either way, the attorneys and staff of Life Care Planning Law Firms will experience grief, great or small, whenever a client dies.
Grief is our total and varied experiences associated with a loss. No matter how professional a law firm may relate to a client, the personal aspects of the relationship cannot be avoided. Grief will come, in small or large degree, when that client dies. It’s just the way humans are wired. For many it is experiences as a “disenfranchised grief.” That is, a grief not validated by society. Yet, it remains quite real. Our humanity asks us to respond to the loss of someone, no matter how brief our encounter or professional our relationship. To ignore grief helps no one. Our hearts and minds need a way to acknowledge the loss and validate our personal grief and simultaneously maintain professionalism. Here are a few ideas. Use them as you see appropriate.
* Personally communicate the news of the death. Although efficient, e-mail announcements of a death may be experienced as abrupt and impersonal. Provide funeral information and allow a representative of the firm to attend.
* Provide a sympathy card and encourage all staff members to sign it, including a personal memory or thought.
* Lighting a candle or placing a single flower in a central part of the office is a simple but significant way of acknowledging the loss and validating the grief of staff members.
* Sharing stories of a client is one of the best ways to respond to grief in an office setting. This can be done informally, around the coffee pot, and usually when someone says, “I remember when Mr. Jones first came to the office and….” Stories can also be shared in an e-mail blog that is confined to the office. When appropriate, these stories can be printed and given to the family as a way of saying this person was more than a client to us.
* Some firms may benefit from conducting a memorial service annually where each client who died the previous year is remembered. Chaplains from hospitals as well as congregational ministers can assist with these.
* Donations for flowers or to a memorial fund may be collected from employees. If a donation is given from the firm. be sure to inform the staff so they will feel they contributed.
* A special place in an office may be selected to create as small memorial where symbols of the person’s life may be displayed. If the client was an avid fisherman and traveler, a lure and reel and map and compass might be displayed. If this is done it is best to encourage staff to bring items for the memorial.
In all losses the importance of acknowledging, validating, normalizing and expressing grief cannot be overstated. Some may shed tears. Others may tell stories. A time of sadness and even a few laughs may expressed by a few or by all. As you give opportunity for grief and expression, always be mindful that grief is a normal experience whenever the client is more than just a client.