Self Care For Psychotherapists During Times Of Loss


Hey, gang, yesterday we learned the tragic news that father, husband, actor, and comedian Robin Williams died by suicide in his home.

One of the Licensed Professional Counselors in our community, Lauren Ostrowski sent the following message to me today . . . .

Tamara,Image of Self Care for Psychotherapists During Times of Loss

I know that usually when there is a major news event, you have a blog post about it. I don’t know how you feel about doing the same thing for Robin Williams. I think it would be good for us all to have a place to discuss our own self-care or strategies for dealing with our own reactions to celebrity tragedies. I think this one is going to be a big part of counseling sessions for weeks to come.”

This loss comes on the heels of a major computer crash in my office 10 days ago which has thrown me woefully behind in my work both here with you and with clients I continue to work with.  I hope you guys will overlook my haste in addressing this matter.

Robin Williams, for many of us, you changed our worlds . . . in so many big and little ways.  I will miss you always.

I know many of you, like me, are heartbroken from the loss of such a generous soul who brightened so many of our lives.

It’s a tricky thing as a mental health professional to balance our clients’ grief along with our own.

Thank you, Lauren, for your sensitivity and thinking of the needs of our online community here.

Whatever your thoughts and connections are to Robin’s spirit and legacy today, I hope you will take a moment to share them here along with your own practices and suggestions for other therapists to engage in self-care during times of loss.

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  1. Fred Theobald says:

    I spent time this morning … and will spend time again tonight, thinking and journaling about my personal reaction then sharing those thoughts with a few colleagues. As I began fielding calls today asking for my “professional” take on the tragedy, as my clients today shared how it affected them, I realized my ability to work with them was a direct result of my being able to work though “my stuff.” As therapists, we cannot share what we don’t own.

    • Thanks, Fred, for stating this so eloquently by owning your own “stuff.” It’s true and, I’m embarrassed to say that as a young professional I just didn’t get this. Beyond the extremes of addiction and having sex with a client, I don’t think this was addressed nearly to the extent that it should have been when I was in graduate school. Fortunately, I think . . . I hope that is no longer the case.

  2. Great question, and one I think is important to respond to.

    I grew up watching Robin Williams… as a teen I giggled when imitating “nanu, nanu” from Mork and Mindy, as a young mother I sang and danced to the Genie in Aladdin, and as a married woman I wept about undying love inspired by What Dreams May Come. The news of Robin’s death has deeply saddened me and causes me to think of my clients who face this particular battle with depression on a regular basis.

    I am practicing self-care in a number of ways: (1) limiting my exposure to the media so I’m more so in control of what I see and read, (2) talking to my trusted inner circle about my feelings, (3) posting on my social media pages about the very real danger depression can present and what to do about it, and (4) planning on watching a few of my favorite movies with Robin Williams Friday night to have a good cry and mourn his death.

    I like this quote from Parker Palmer about self-care: ““Self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others.” As I take care of myself, I am better able to be there for others. And, right now, I’m needing more self-care than usual as I grapple with this sad, heart wrenching death of Robin Williams.

    • Lauren Ostrowski, MA, LPC, NCC, DCC says:

      Barbara, you make a good point about monitoring how much media coverage you’re watching. Personally, I have been watching whatever is available for two reasons: first, I’m interested in hearing as much as I can about the impact that he had on the world and hearing that many other people are expressing feelings makes me feel as though I’m not alone in wondering what could have happened in years to come. The other reason is that I am also paying attention to the coverage about depression and this way I have some knowledge of what some clients are hearing.

      I also realized that I did not mention the self-care strategies that I’m using in any great detail. I am also leaving on trusted friends. For me, this is the most helpful. It is at those times where I do not need to be mindful of my phrasing or whether I am putting someone else before me (as we do as counselors), but on working through the thoughts and feelings together.

      • Lauren, like you, I’ve been devouring the info on TV about Robin’s death. In part, that’s been about trying to get the reality to sink in. I did the same thing when Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley died.

    • Barbara, I love this quote and know exactly what you mean about needing more self-care than usual. I think I can count on one hand the number of deaths of “famous” people that have affected me quite so hard. As so many others have tweeted . . . it seems as if there are “just no words . . . . ”

      I saw that one of the journalists on a major news network has referred to Robin’s death as an act of cowardice. How sad to characterize anyone’s death in those terms. As mental health professionals, we know better and obviously need to do still better at educating the general public on this topic. For those of you who are looking to further educate yourself about suicide, check out Stacey Freedenthal’s website Speaking of Suicide.

      • Lauren Ostrowski, MA, LPC, NCC, DCC says:

        Thanks for posting this website. I had not seen it before. Perhaps it will help some people to feel less alone in those darkest moments.

  3. Lauren Ostrowski, MA, LPC, NCC, DCC says:

    I’ll miss you, Robin.

    As is so common with loss, I did not realize how much Robin Williams (and the characters he brought to life) meant to me and how much happiness he brought to me. As I have watched specials about his life over the past several days, I find myself repeatedly saying “oh, that’s right; that was him” or “I remember that.” He brought joy to so many during his life. I hope that his death also brings a new awareness to hidden depression (or other emotional anguish).

    It is often part of an intake process to discuss expectations for treatment. In addition to this, near the end of my intake, I always mention that it took a lot of strength (or something similar) for the client to come in today. I also ask how their experience compared to what they thought it would be and I emphasize (again) that counseling is really for them and that is important for me to know whether they are getting what they feel they want and need out of counseling so that we can make changes where necessary.

    I have not once opened a conversation in a counseling session about Robin Williams. I was amazed to hear that he was a part of EVERY session I have had since his death. So far, there have been mentions of favorite movies, characters, impressions, or lines of dialogue. Two or three minutes of the session where we can join and say “Yes, it is really sad.” Despite the different elements that each person highlights, the fact that it is so incredibly sad is almost always the first thing people say.

    Thanks to everyone who has joined together to discuss Robin Williams so that we can be more available to our clients for the discussions that they need or want to have.

    • Lauren, your experience has been similar to my own with just about everyone bringing up the topic in one way or another. Again, thank you for suggesting that a place be created here on Private Practice from the Inside Out for this conversation.

      • Lauren Ostrowski, MA, LPC, NCC, DCC says:

        Thanks for creating a place where we are able to have these discussions. I am grateful for everyone here.

  4. I was shocked and incredibly saddened by the news. I met him briefly many years ago after having dreamt I would do so twice. It was such a fun experience. He was very humane and warm, as you would have expected. The fact that depression can bring down a force such as Robin Williams is so telling about how seriously we need to take this disease.

    I am sad that we won’t have any more of his amazing work, such as in Good Will Hunting. While that therapist obviously did a lot of unethical things for drama, the core sense of that relationship really captured the magic of therapy for me. I’m so sad.

    Thank you for posting this.


    • The other thing that this brings to mind for me, Amy, is how easily it is for all of us to be deceived into not seeing what we don’t want to see. Whether it is depression, bi-polar disorder, an addiction, or something else. In hindsight, of course, when the blindfold is ripped away, we can see so much more. But, if we can’t see “it” whatever “it” is, it’s highly unlikely that friends, family, and coworkers could see “it” any better.

  5. Janel Wager says:

    It still seems unreal to me that Robin Williams is really gone. Death is always a loss no matter how it happens. I appreciate you bringing up this topic and all the great comments so far.

    For me, self care starts with awareness. I have several personal warning signs that I am approaching the edge and need to increase my self care. One important sign is a vague feeling of resentment at being needed by clients. Clearly at odds with my chosen profession! Another is an increased desire for client’s to know me personally. While I don’t think that’s inappropriate, it’s not the first goal of therapy and thus is an indicator to me that I need to spend more time with friends and family who really do know me well. Increasing the fun/pleasurable activities in my life, talking with friends, journalling, maybe consulting with a colleague, spending time outdoors are all helpful self care activities for me.

  6. Lauren Ostrowski, MA, LPC, NCC, DCC says:

    After briefly discussing Robin Williams in a session yesterday, a client asked me to watch this 10 minute explanation of depression: . For those of you who are anticipating questions about Parkinson’s disease now that we are aware that Robin Williams was recently diagnosed with it, here are some fact sheets:

  7. Just like all of you I am in shock, and also grieving the death of this Giant Angel! His movies touched me so deeply, and the fact that he was also a great and loving human being, without any arrogance, a truly humble man, it makes his passing even sadder! However, thinking about his Parkinson diagnosis and how it would affect him, I wish Robin had a therapist or a knowledgeable friend who could be there for him and process with him his fears! It is sad that someone who brought so much joy and healing to everyone, did not get the support that he needed! That is a reminder for us all to take care of ourselves, and be an example of self care to others!

    • Hi, Nelly! Thanks so much for dropping in to share your thoughts. I so appreciate you referencing Robin’s Parkinson’s diagnosis. We didn’t know about that when I started this post but, like you, I know that depression is often a complication of this diagnosis.

      For several years, I worked primarily with geriatrics – mostly with those who had neurological impairments due to strokes and injury. I have never worked with a client who had Parkinson’s that was not depressed. It’s similar to the dementias in that Parkinson’s creeps upon you gradually stealing your ability to speak clearly, move easily, and think clearly. Here’s a link to more information on Parkinson’s disease.

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