Irvin Yalom’s wisdom for hospice social workers

No discussion of counseling in hospice would be complete without an acknowledgment of the little book that has become the counselor’s bible.

Irvin Yalom’s The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients is one of the best starting points for hospice social workers who wish to expand their understanding and deepen their approach to counseling. Anyone who works with hospice patients would find it valuable, but it gives hospice social workers much of the information and inspiration we need to provide psychotherapeutic counseling as we do our daily visits.

Here are three of the specific gifts I learned from Gift of Therapy that I’d like to pass along

Understanding how the therapeutic relationship heals.

Yalom makes real how instances of transference become opportunities for realization. As issues clients face become reflected in their behavior toward the therapist, the therapist can work with these behaviors in ways that support better understanding and more adaptive behaviors.

While hospice is usually not about improving behaviors, it is about affirmation and overcoming shame. The guilt, denial, and anger that clients apply to their relationships with us are opportunities to help them work through their grief.

The importance of being your true, vulnerable, self

Yalom rejects the blank screen concept and puts himself into the therapy process in some startling ways. If we want hospice patients and family members to embrace enough courage to meet with us authentically, then we can model that for them by expressing ourselves authentically with them.

How to self-disclose responsibly

Yalom advocates for self-disclosure, but elucidates on what areas are ok to disclose in which situations. This is crucial for hospice social workers to consider due to the unique context in which we work.

Often our counseling looks a lot like a social visit. Patients’ spouses, children or caregivers pour us water or coffee and chat with us at their kitchen tables. Often they want to know something about the person they are allowing into their lives. Gift of Therapy provides a thorough discussion of how and what is appropriate to share about ourselves.

This is the book

If someone were to ask, “What is one thing to read to learn hospice social work well?” I would answer, “Read”

If they were to want more about counseling in a hospice setting, I’d recommend Gift of Therapy.  It’s relevant to hospice without ever mentioning it. It sensitively addresses so many of the thoughts and feelings that those who receive and provide hospice services experience.


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