As far back as I can remember, I’ve never been very good at goodbyes. I recall crying the entire ride home from my first summer at Camp HASC. My parents thought they would cheer me up by taking me out to eat. Yummy food does tend to have a soothing effect and their strategy actually worked until a camper from HASC entered the same restaurant with her family. The quaint café quickly turned into an offshoot of Niagara Falls. But Camp HASC is one of the greatest places on earth. After working so closely with the special campers for a whole summer, strong connections are formed, and counselors and campers become very attached to one another. So, the last day of camp is a bit sad for many who attend the camp. I was far from the only one who had an emotional outburst. But I have also been known to cry at the conclusion of five-day-long outreach seminars that I attended as an advisor in my college years. I would leave NSCY shabbatons with a huge lump in my throat. And these days, sometimes I even get a bit teary eyed when my kids leave home after Shabbos and head back to their homes away from home. They don’t usually notice this (and please don’t share this piece of information with them if you know who they are) because they are eagerly looking ahead towards their destination. But I look towards them from behind with a mixture of happiness, pride, and longing. I hate saying goodbye.
I am about to leave my job where I spent the better part of the last eight years. I work as a social worker in an assisted living program for adults with mental illness. I took this job as a temporary placement, not expecting to enjoy it all that much. I had never worked nor intended to work with this population, but it worked for me at the time and I figured I would move on after three months. Little did I know that I would like the job much more than I expected. No job is perfect, and mine is no exception. There are things I like about my job and there are things I find difficult to tolerate. But I love my clients. There is something very genuine and endearing about them. Many of them have suffered and continue to suffer immensely. They’ve never asked for the diagnoses that were thrust upon them, which at times make just getting through the day an almost insurmountable hurdle. Basic activities that many of us take for granted present formidable challenges to them. It is often heartbreaking to watch. Those who have not lost their motivation due to their difficult circumstances want to succeed. They want to be understood. They want to be valued and respected by others. But many of them spend their days navigating their way through a never-ending obstacle course. There are so many roadblocks in their way. But we encourage them to keep going. We cheer them on. Sometimes we push them. Sometimes we drag them. But we do all we can to steer them in the right direction and traverse the harsh terrain that lays before them. Some are more independent and resent our interference, while others depend on us like little children. But they don’t always grow as quickly as children do. Change is slow in coming. But when it does come, the sense of satisfaction is enormous.
As much as I love my clients, I’ve reached a point that I’m ready for a change. I stayed at this job much longer than the original intended three months and it’s time to move on. So, here I am once again saying goodbye. And it’s not easy. I’m not flooding the office with my tears, but I do get a bit choked up each time I terminate with a client. My clients and I have been through a lot together. We’ve shared good moments but we have also faced great difficulties and even tragedies together.
Times of transition are great opportunities to look back and take stock of how things once were, and how much and in what ways we’ve progressed. As I reflect with my clients on their ups and downs, their periods of growth, their times of regression, and their overall transformations, I do the same for myself. I am not the same person I was when I started this job. I have learned a lot from my clients, and many of them have inspired me in numerous ways. There’s the one who lost his job and didn’t let it get him down. He picked himself up, held his head high, and on his own, found a new job within days. There’s the one who struggles with his diagnosis. On one hand, he knows that he is sick, but yet he also sees himself as normal. He is literally in combat mode on a constant basis, fighting his diagnosis and trying to live as normal a life as possible. There’s one who studied to get semichah while working full time and another who spends hours learning in the Beis Medrash despite his difficulty focusing. And the one who would love nothing more than to spend the day in bed but pushes herself to work, shop, cook, clean, and all else that is required of her. There’s my client who puts most people off in a big way. As a result, she is often ridiculed and verbally abused. Yet, she continues to try to help whoever she can in the ways she is able. With the odds stacked against them, my clients try as hard as they can to rise above their illnesses and forge ahead. It’s not easy, but they put one foot in front of the other and persevere. Being part of this process is humbling.
Yes, it is difficult to say goodbye. My clients and I have a strong bond. I hope that my efforts to help them over the years will continue to impact them in a positive way, and that the lessons my clients have taught me will make me a better social worker and a better person. Then our journeys will remain intertwined and our bond will not be broken.
Suzie (nee Schapiro) Steinberg grew up in Kew Gardens Hills. She works as a social worker and lives with her husband and children in Ramat Beit Shemesh.