Friday, January 28, 2011

Lessons in loss

The pretty much new blog has been kind of quiet. That's to be expected, considering I'm a grad student who has a penchant for biting off more than I can chew :D

It's also been a rough month for me, both personally and professionally. My placement has to be one of the most difficult internships imaginable (besides perhaps working in a hospice). I'm placed in a domestic violence shelter. It's a short term, emergency shelter. Clients have about 135 days to stay there before they're sent back to the homeless processing center in NYC to be placed in yet another shelter. My first batch of clients are beginning to terminate right now, and I'm feeling all kinds of conflicted about that.

There's one client in particular that is difficult. She's in her early-40s, with an adorable daughter. She's relentlessly positive when most others would be breaking down, and she's a devoted mother, always putting her precocious 3 year old above all else. She's discharging today. And she's not really sure where she's going. She's undocumented. That means she can't get documented employment, and thus is not qualified for the only housing program worth pursing. She gets something like $18 in public assistance. She's in the middle of a custody battle with a man who threw her down two flights of stairs, with a man who brought her here from her home country where she had a rewarding career, with a degree that is no good here, when she didn't speak a word of English (oh, did I mention she's amazingly intelligent? Taught herself English in only a few years, and she speaks beautifully).

To say there's a lot of counter-transference going on in this case would be a gross understatement. During my time as her counselor, she has transformed into a mother figure. For someone like her, I think this was very beneficial because she is a nurturer and her self-esteem is rooted in feeling like she is a good nurturer. Her daughter also reminds me a lot of myself at that age. The dynamic of our relationship, however, brings up a lot of my issues with my mother. She reminds me of what could have been if x, y and z didn't happen. It's shown me that I haven't grieved over the loss of my mother-daughter relationship. My mother isn't dead, or anything. I don't mean to give that impression. She's just unable to provide guidance and comfort for me, because she can't even provide it for herself. I haven't come to terms with this, and I think this client made me feel comforted.

I was a very parentified child. My mother was in an abusive relationship. She was always so fragile, and I was her protector. The client's daughter feels the same way about her mother. She once drew a picture of two people: a really tall person and a really short person. She identified the really tall person as herself. The short person was her mother. When asked why, she said it's because she needs to protect her mommy from the monster. I can't say I didn't feel the same way about the client during our relationship. We once spent an extraordinarily long day together in court, and I remember looking over at her. She had her head between her hands, and she looked so worn, so exhausted. Underneath her strong exterior, she really was struggling with everything. I recognized immediately how I felt at that moment, and it was exactly how I would feel when I would find my mom crying over the stove, in her room, where ever. I wanted to save her.

I think this termination has been harder on me than on her. I want to keep in touch, but I can't. I want to help her after she leaves, but I can't. I want to hand her a green card, but, yeah, I can't.

Losing this client and the few others who will be gone by the week's end hurts. I am queen of abandonment issues, plus I have a 1 o'clock appointment to euthanize my sick cat today. I'm ready for 2012 already.


  1. found your blog via Marylyn... I think that this blog is a very important endeavor. I hope you can continue it with all your other responsibilities.

    My condolences for your loss. I hope that you have the support you need to grieve for your cat.

    I have subscribed to your blog and look forward to more,



  2. Thanks, Ivan. I am very fortunate to have plenty of loving friends to help me through this time.

    I really hope I can keep up with it, too. It's actually a really great tool for processing everything going on.

  3. Michelle, I really appreciate your thoughtfulness around this. Ending our work with people we really care about is really challenging. And of course we don't stop caring about folks after our work is artificially (pr structurally) over. I often think that's because we actually do work in human relationships, even though the model is SW practice. I hope you can find personal way for you to honor your relationship with her and send her energetic well-wishes and caring. I think that's important to create space for.