Memory is a pervasive theme in each of our lives. Memory is not necessary to remain alive, but it is necessary to know you have lived. Memory is also a salient theme when working with older adults. I work with individuals who have memory issues, some long term, some short term. I work with individuals who are holding on to their lived life through memories as they work to cope with loss of homes and functional declines. I work with families who hold on to memories of their parents as they slowly deteriorate. As I work with more and more clients, my own memories are infiltrated with memories of these human beings I have developed deep therapeutic relationships with. My own memories hold the memories of those who are losing their own, and those who are desperate to reminisce about their younger years because that seems to be all that is left. Another reality to working with older adults is the reality that more than the average aged client, older adults pass away amidst counseling services. So to add to the list of memories, I am left with memory of those clients who have died.
“In Memoriam” literally means “into memory.” As most of us know, this phrase is often used in memorials or obituaries for those who have passed away. Throughout our lifetime, we incorporate experiences and relationships “into” our memory. That formed memory may or may not represent the reality that happened in the moment of those events, but nonetheless, those memories are what we are left with to know we experienced something; that we felt something; that we lived. The majority of our memories involve the presence of another human being. Relationships are ingrained in our life, impacting the development of the self. We do not experience this world isolated from other people. People shape our memories, creating the emotions that we feel that impact our remembering of our memories.
As a counselor, we are trained on the concepts of transference, countertransference, and the ability to separate our own “stuff” from that of the clients. We are trained to focus our entire sense of purpose for that time period on another human being, to allow them to feel that presence of such unconditional positive regard, to feel seen, heard, and understood. We are trained on aspects of self disclosure; what is too much, what is too little, where is the balance? Then we are trained on self care, to work to “leave work at work,” to practice strategies to release the immense emotions and suffering we are present with for 8 hours at a time. Interestingly, when it comes to incorporating memories, emotions are unbelievably powerful in encoding lasting memories. As counselors, in many ways, we are memory keepers. Our own brains are bombarded with emotion, with pain, with joy, with triumph and loss. While these emotions are our clients, and we are trained to practice true empathy, which distinguishes the client’s emotions from our own, we have still encoded such emotional exchanges into our memory. So what do we do with all these emotional memories? This is a vital question for counselors that goes far beyond self care practices. I’m not sure I have an answer for you on this one, but I do want to explore my own thinking surrounding my recent experiences….
I am left within this past couple weeks with a heavy heart, as one of my longest standing clients passed away. Now as I said earlier, to some degree, death is to be expected when working with older adults. I have now experienced the death of a client dozens of times in my 4 short years of working as a counselor. Each time I have been left with a range of emotions. Each time my humanity feels sadden by the loss, my own stuff naturally floods my heart, the countless hours spent with that person. I have had some close people in my life say that I must harden my heart to work with people at the end of their life, people with no real future to be seen. Not once has that been the case, and I know that for every person who works with older adults in any modality, the opposite is true - we embrace the personhood of the older adult. It is an opening up of your heart to realize the privilege that comes with working with older adults. The privilege to be witness to an individual’s entire existence. To be witness to the most vulnerable and raw stages of life, when individuals are working to accept their mortality. When the end of that long confusing road of life can be seen in the distance and the hills and bumps of the past have fallen off the horizon. I am so privileged to be present with such lived lives, some described to me as full of misery and pain, others described as boring and consistent, and still others deemed joyful and beautiful. No matter the descriptors, I have the privilege to incorporate another human beings entire existence into my own memory. To be a part of their existence by simply acknowledging and respecting that life. That is where the hope in such counseling lies for me, that is where my answer to the what do I do with all this stuff comes into play.
What do I do with all the memories of other people’s memories? I honor them. I honor them by living my own day to day life in a manner that appreciates every experience, every emotion, and every change. The good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful. I honor them by practicing such appreciation for the personhood of each ‘other’ I interact with, whether strangers, peers, friends, or family. To interact with others in a way that makes them feel heard, seen, and appreciated. Now this is not something I have even come close to mastering, as a human being I have many flaws. I get tired and grow weary, expressing such energy through annoyance or irritability, through shortness and anger. However, I honor all those I have worked with and lost through taking that step back and starting anew in my efforts to be better. To be better at meeting people where they are and continuing to show my appreciation for their existence.
So I write this blog this week In Memoriam of each of my clients who have died and for all those that I know will die throughout my future work. I may lose the details of some of their memories as my own memory dwindles at times, but their lived lives have shifted to be more than just memories within my own memory; their lived lives are now a part of how I operate as a human being in this world. So in memory of their lived lives, I can perhaps continue to impact others around me in some capacity, small or large and that butterfly effect can spread to others. So here is to each one of you, the lives you lived and the definite impact your existence had on at least my part in this world.
As always, would love to hear from you and your own related experiences! Your emails and feedback continue to drive and inspire my work! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lee Kehoe is a counselor working with the older adult population. It is her passion to serve the older adult population through counseling, research, and advocacy efforts, with the hope of raising awareness to the growing needs of older adults and their families. www.kehoemhcounseling.com