I’ve been carrying around a book review* on the emotional aspects of end-of-life care. “As we mature professionally,” it says, “many of us realize that our attraction to the helping professions is deeply rooted in our desire and need to connect with others and to realize the power and fragility of our humanness. Elements of common ground and shared life experiences are a core aspect of connectivity between people.”
Today I spent time with a woman who’s been caring for her ill husband around the clock for weeks. His health is rapidly declining and death is near. As we spoke of loss and of the daunting task of carrying on afterwards, I became aware of my own woundedness.
Some might say that my job is to listen, to offer comfort, and to keep my personal feelings in check. Yet in that instance, a layer of pretence fell away—the pretence that I’m just fine while you’re hurting—and I blurted out some of my own loss. Just a few words: “I’m still grieving for us. The thought of opening my heart to someone new makes me feel as if I were being unfaithful.” With that, my eyes filled with tears. As we sat in silence, she reached to touch my arm. “Yes, I know. We have that in common. You can understand what I’m going through. Thank you.”
There’s a concept called countertransference. Originating with Sigmund Freud (1986-1939), it refers to unresolved issues in the helper which, when brought into a helping relationship, will erode objectivity and have a negative impact on the process. In the book under review, that definition is reframed to match my experience of today:
“Working with countertransference is regarded as a positive and important therapeutic … and indispensable instrument in our work. It is the basis of empathy and deeper understanding of both [participants].”
*Katz, R.S. & Johnson, T.A. (eds.) (2006). When professionals weep: emotional and countertransference responses in end-of-life care. New York: Rutledge. Reviewed in Journal of Social Work in End-of-Life & Palliative Care, 4(1), 2008, 79-81.