For a few months now, I have been contemplating whether to write this column or to keep these thoughts to myself. I have wondered if the subject might be too self-reflective, too self-indulgent or maybe just too personal. In the end, I decided to move forward and share these thoughts with you.
My father came from a family of six. He was the second of the siblings to pass away, and he was survived by four brothers. My mom was one of nine children, and six of her siblings had died prior to her passing away in 2014. So, in both of my parents’ cases, they were preceded in death by some of their siblings and survived by others.
Fast-forward to January of this year, when my beloved sister, Robin, lost her courageous five-year battle with cancer. In our family, there were two kids — Robin and me. She was the kind of big sister who always looked out for me, took care of me and supported me, even when the choices I made might have raised an eyebrow or two.
Robin and I were a good match. Some people have even said that we were a “model” for what a sister and brother should be like. But now, unlike my father, my mother or even my sister, I find that I am the proverbial “last man standing.”
I am keenly aware that a relationship with a sibling is something unique. As part of that relationship, you share experiences and stories that most other people never know about (and certainly not your parents!).
When your last (or only) sibling dies, you become the keeper of those secret stories and shared memories. You can tell others about those experiences, but it just isn’t the same. I will miss so many things about my sister. In many ways, she resembled my mom in being an extremely generous, caring, supportive and genuine person.
As Robin went through various treatments, procedures and medicines, she never said that she wanted to live longer so that she could walk on the beach, or see spring flowers in bloom, or even witness our hapless San Francisco 49ers return to the Super Bowl. Nope, her drive to live came from her desire to see her grandsons grow up. She was just that kind of person — someone who wanted to see others succeed, grow and develop.
I now feel somewhat embarrassed about not having been more compassionate in the past when friends or colleagues experienced the loss of a sibling. I certainly expressed my condolences and offered my support during those times, but having now gone through the actual experience myself, I imagine that I will be even more genuine in what I say in the future. My firsthand experience has been an eye-opener.
As professional counselors, you have a huge hurdle to overcome. You are the “listener” for those who share their doubts, concerns and anxieties. However, you are also a person with your own thoughts, experiences and emotions. Our ACA Code of Ethics provides guidance in terms of what you bring into a counseling relationship and what you try to keep “outside” of that dialogue with your clients and students.
I continue to be impressed with what our members and other professional counselors do for the millions of clients, students and communities with which they work. Professional counselors deal with clients’ grief, sadness, lack of direction and, at times, even joy. All of this can be quite taxing.
Given that reality, I will continue to recommend that professional counselors receive training focused on their own personal wellness. This is so important if counselors are to continue delivering such valuable services. Self-care needs to be a cornerstone of the training that our members receive, and it must be something that our members practice on a regular basis. Let your experiences help you to be a better professional counselor, but do not let those experiences damage the important counselor-client relationships that you build.