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Considering the Value in Goodbye: Social Work Relationship Endings


Anthony, Breaktime Associate, and Natasha Adeyemi, Community Outreach Director


I am one small chapter in the lives of the Associates I work with at Breaktime, just as they are a chapter in mine. And although my part may be small, and the meaning differs for each individual, the ending of these relationships always means loss.


In the field of Social Work, summer is marked by transitions and terminations in case management and clinical relationships. Thousands of Master of Social Work interns in Eastern Massachusetts complete their spring semester finals and concurrently go through the process of saying goodbye to clients of all ages and backgrounds, some of whom they have been working with for over a year. This change is a natural and more expected part of school environments. But it may feel abrupt or cut short in other settings– programs may be incomplete, client goals may be unmet, and clients may still be working towards their desired change. Therefore, with so much unfinished, Social Workers must be mindful of how clients experience case transitions and terminations, so much so that it is in our ethical code.


My name is Sloane, and I am a Pathway Coach at Breaktime. I have directly supported Associates through Breaktime’s program since June 2022. Next month, I, and a few other Pathway Coaches, will be leaving to begin our next Master of Social Work clinical placements, and the Associates we work with will start new relationships with other Pathway Coaches.


A Social Worker’s primary responsibility is to promote the well-being of their clients. In the section Termination of Services, the NASW Code of Ethics emphasizes the Social Worker’s responsibility to terminate or transition clients with “careful consideration to all factors in the situation and taking care to minimize possible adverse effects.” As Breaktime is a fast-growing start-up organization, this summer is the first time Breaktime is managing a robust Associate transition. This situation has allowed us to ask what a healthy transition can and should look like at Breaktime.


Many individuals in the population we serve have had several, if not dozens, of social workers, counselors, and helpers in their young lives. When working directly with this population, we like to ask, “Who is in 'the room' with you?” We are often quick to consider culturally emphasized relationships, like parents or caregivers. But who else matters? Who helped you believe in yourself?


Who showed you that you can be accepted, despite your mistakes? Who allowed you to be angry at the unfairness and discrimination in your life without shifting the focus onto themselves? Where are these people? Do they only exist in your memory? Were they there, and then, in a moment, they were gone?

Our commitment to our Associates means we must be intentional in this transition process. Our ethical code asks us to “recognize the central importance of human relationships” and understand relationships are vehicles for change, healing, and more. Progress lies within the relationship. And often, the progress is the relationship itself.


Research has shown that clients are more likely to feel case transitions are “successful” when the entering clinician helps them cope with their feelings about the transfer. This process can include discussing the loss, setting realistic expectations for the new relationship, and processing feelings. Additionally, through conversations with the departing clinician, clients can find meaning in the relationship's ending and begin processing their emotions before they leave. Furthermore, this can be a space to heal previous experiences with loss that did not respect the dignity and worth of the client.


Speaking for myself, the anticipation of this change has felt not unlike grief. I have felt an internal pressure to leave all of these relationships tied up– goals met, crises solved, etc—which is unrealistic for several reasons, among them being that I have never solved anything for an Associate. Everything my Associates have accomplished in the last 14 months has been a product of their resilience, dedication, and accountability. And, even still, I am not grieving unmet goals. I am grieving the end of our relationship.


I am so grateful for all the Associates I have worked with at Breaktime. They have bravely shared their lives with me and made the frightening decision to be vulnerable, time after time. Our Social Work system takes us students, puts us in front of individuals looking for support, and asks us to learn from each other. This practice is not easy for anyone involved. Ethically, I will have to close the book on these relationships. But that does not mean I will stop caring for my Associates and wishing them well in all of their future endeavors. My goal in these final weeks is to review our journey together and assist them in recentering their ownership of their own stories and successes, as well as to celebrate everything that we were able to do together.


With all that said, it comforts me to know that after I’ve gone, I will still be in the room with them.


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