It has been a while since my last blog update in August. I wrote about how social workers deal with death. And, as if to remind us why talking about it was so taboo, death visited my family a month after the blog post was published - my father passed away in early September 2020.
As my siblings and I grappled with the challenges of holding a funeral while complying to the COVID-19 safety measures, managing our own grief, attending to my late father's estate and many other post-death responsibilities, many things were pushed aside 'to another day'. Yet, the things we used to do may not hold the same importance or urgency to us when our circumstances changed. The normalcy of our past lives no longer seems to be a norm we are maintaining today when significant events happened in our lives. The returning to normalcy takes us into a reflection of what our priorities are now, what resources we have in order to cope and adjust to the changes that had happened. It will take time to get used to this change.
How do clients get back to normalcy?
As social workers, we try our best to work with our clients when they face crises. When a sole income earner gets into an accident, we know that this would mean a reduction or even a loss of income for the family. For some, it may be a temporary setback. For others, the break from the norm takes longer to overcome. While clients try their best to regain homeostasis, other changes might happen within the family system that they have to adjust to as well. For instance, the husband's loss of income might result in the wife taking on full-time work; impacting on the family caregiving. This might also affect the husband's sense of self-worth. The teenage child might take on part-time work to supplement their needs, affecting studies, which perhaps may lead to dropping out of school. The elderly mother might stop her medication or refuse treatment, hoping to cut 'unnecessary' expenses on her part. Each of the individual's response to the initial crisis adds to the complexity of the change in the family.
Thus, when social workers work with the client towards normalcy, that normalcy might not be the previous status quo that clients had once before. Social workers will need to be cognizant of the changes and pre-empt these changes with a discussion of how the future would look like for the client and the family.
Dealing with uncertainties
Still, the discussion itself can be difficult because future reality is uncertain. Social workers grapple between instilling hope without glossing over the realities and challenges to come. How do you encourage a patient who has lost a limb that there are still possibilities to explore when you are unsure of what these possibilities could be? How could you get a mother grieving the death of her infant to move on knowing that life would never have the same meaning again? Similarly, with the current pandemic and its impact on everyone's lives, livelihood and even our social work practice, nothing will ever be the same again.
We talked about 'the new normal', not the one we had before. In a way, that is what our clients have to deal with after every life-changing event.
The social worker's role
While offering practical help and services are synonymous to the work we do with clients undergoing transitions in their lives, the fundamental skill of listening with empathy remains crucial. Our genuineness and positive regard offer clients a safe holding space to express their anger and grief over what they have lost; and their anxieties and fears over what is to come. And perhaps, within that therapeutic helping relationship, clients may find the courage and strength to start again with renewed hope.
Things are not going to go back the way they used to be, but hope leads the way for all of us to embrace a different normalcy.