Empathy is Life’s Greatest Teacher

Last week I experienced every mental health professional’s worst nightmare. A young man I worked with took his own life.

If you want to get caught up to speed about what happened, feel free to check out last week’s post: https://caringcounselor.blog/2019/01/08/suicide-is-a-btch/

Although writing about it helped initially the next day, it did not prepare for what the remainder of the week had in store. My trauma response was enacted. I was on auto pilot. I went through the motions. My most basic emotional reactions from a smile to showing sympathy felt forced.

I emotionally distanced myself from everyone. In my sessions, I barely engaged in any sort of genuine connection with my clients. When talking to my friends and family, I heard them, but I was not listening. They sounded like the teacher from Charlie Brown.

Sitting at my desk did not prove any better. I worked my stress ball through my fingers unable to focus on the mountain of paperwork strewn across my office. I sat back in my little valley pondering. This kid’s suicide really got to me- more than I ever fathomed. It got under my thick skin.

I realized that these feelings could become problematic if they festered. I reached out to my supervisors to see if they had any input. They both experienced client suicides before, and I thought they might have some advice. My one supervisor pointed out that the situation was still “fresh.” She had a point. At the time of that phone call, only three days had passed. It was still extremely early in the grieving process. She furthermore acknowledged that she was not on her “A game” so to speak right after her first client suicide. This one was harder to swallow. I always hold myself to a high standard, especially when it comes to my profession that I pride myself in. I struggled to accept that I might not be at my best throughout the week.

I went to my personal therapy session two days later prepared to talk about the client’s suicide. I started talking to my therapist about what happened, and my brain spewed word vomit. The more I spoke, the more apparent it became about what bothered me. My client’s suicide took me back to my own bouts with suicidal thoughts. I went deep down the dark path on two occasions – once when I was 17 and again when I was 25. As irrational and messed up as it may sound, I was comparing my past bouts with my own client’s suicide. I could not wrap my head around what possessed me to not follow through on it versus what ultimately pushed my client into doing it.

Later that evening, after dropping a client off at home and in the midst of an hour drive back to my office, my brain decided to venture into rumination territory. I thought about this client’s suicide and what came out in my own therapy session. I was numb no more. A wave of emotion overwhelmed me. My chest hurt. My eyes welled up. I was sad and panicking. I called my supervisor. She did not answer. Luckily, I had enough wits about me to use some self-talk to calm myself. My supervisor called me back, and I told her what happened and how it affected my work performance the last few days. She advised me to take a mental health day if I had the time off. Feeling defeated, that’s what I did.

I forget who I was talking to this past week about it, but we got onto the topic of empathy. I recall them saying, “Empathy is life’s greatest teacher.” I can say with 100% confidence that I have been through a ton of shit. I never let it hold me back however. I always tried to learn from it. Frankly, being able to put myself in someone else’s shoes made me a better therapist than anything a textbook could teach. I have been able to use what I learned to help others.

With my client’s suicide in particular, I cannot begin to imagine what his family is feeling and how they will overcome this in the coming months. However, I can say that my team and I could not have done anything differently to prevent this from happening. You can be damn well sure that I am going to use life’s lessons to best of my ability and hopefully prevent something similar from happening again. A tumultuous past can be a blessing in disguise.

-The Caring Counselor


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