For those of you who don’t know, I am a community social worker administering services in the form of a community development model. All this really means is I am a well-informed friend and cheerleader to people who don’t have anyone else to play that role for them. I work with some of the most vulnerable and troubled people in the City. I see and hear of violence, addictions, serious mental illnesses, trauma, physical health issues, systemic racism, and many more things on a daily basis.
Those things take a terrible toll on the folk I work with everyday. But, as much as I hate to admit, those things have taken a terrible toll on me over these last three years. I’ve begun to take these things too personally, like these things are happening to a family member or friend. I’ve let my boundaries come down as I’ve gotten to know these people over years and I’ve gotten too close to many clients.
I wouldn’t normally consider this to be a problem in the type of work I am currently doing. As a social worker, trust and positive relationships can be difficult to come by. I am thankful I’ve been able to break down barriers and provide accessible service to those who are mostly forgotten by other systems.
But, back to the problem- recently, I’ve had to deal with the deaths of two clients I became very close with. One was expected and I found easier to deal with. The most recent was very sudden and it has really hit me hard. I visited her in the hospital two days before she passed, she seemed in decent shape and I was really looking forward to her recovery when we could do more things together to increase her quality of life. I thought this trip to the hospital might actually be a good thing as it would force her to address her neglected health and get her the services she didn’t want to admit she needed.
After all the work we did together- renovating her rooming house, planting gardens every year, endless chats, problem solving, and so much more… I find myself wondering:
“what good did it really do? I couldn’t convince her to address her health
conditions. I couldn’t get her think of her future. I couldn’t save her life.”
So, is my good work really enough?
I know people will step in when I relay these concerns and tell me that what I do really does make a difference in lives. But when the vast negatives overshadow those teeny, tiny victories it really makes you question yourself and the systems you work in. Is all this heartache and acquisition of vicarious trauma really making the world a better place for anyone? Am I working myself into burnout for the good of others? If someone benefits, I’m happy to take on the work and the trouble. But, how will I ever know?
How will I know that good work is enough to make a difference in these lives?