An exploration of psychotherapists' experiences of bereavement and personal illness

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Devilly, Sarah
Issue Date
MA in Psychotherapy
Dublin Business School
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Aim: The aim of the research was to explore psychotherapists’ experiences of bereavement or personal illness and the impact on clinical practice as well as themselves, as practitioners. Method: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with six experienced and accredited psychotherapists and the data was analysed using thematic analysis. Findings: Three themes emerged from the analysis encompassing the self-care practices and supports that the cohort found helpful, such as personal therapy, exercise, a healthy diet and meditative practices. The theme of professional practice included aspects of reflective process with regard to self-disclosure and client reactions to disclosure as well. There were issues of role-reversal in some instances with the client caring and supporting the therapist. It also found that discussion of the implications for clients of unexpected events in their therapist’s life, such as serious illness or death, was limited from the therapist’s own reflection and practice, as well as an absence of reflecting on personal crises in the course of therapeutic work as part of therapist training courses. Illness and bereavement have impacts on the professional working life of the psychotherapist as well as on their personal outlook. As the use of self is integral in the work this change ripples into client work. Some therapists reported considerable changes in their outlook on life and meaning. The findings highlighted that some research participants described feeling greater empathy towards their clients and a deeper therapeutic connectedness with them. Conclusion: Bereavement and illness are just two of the many personally challenging life events that a therapist may likely experience during their lifetime of therapeutic work. Self-care is imperative in order to resource the therapist in their physical and mental well-being. Personal therapy may be particularly supportive at times of distress and supervision a necessity as the therapist experiences and processes life-change. Some self-disclosure may be necessary during such times due to absence from planned appointments, particularly in the case of illness and prolonged unavailability. Therefore reflecting on the implications for practice with clients, in advance of sudden life events can support professional best practice. Author keywords: Bereavement, illness, self-disclosure, self-care