When Clients Make Counselors Cry

The traditional view of a therapy is one in which the client struggles to make a deep emotional breakthrough while the therapist remains professional, detached, emotionless. If that’s good therapy, then I’m a lousy counselor.

I am often deeply moved by the people who come to see me. They have powerful stories to tell—stories of pain and loss, of courage and hope. Recently, during a session with Bill, his tale took an unexpected turn that caused my eyes to flood and spill over in streams. His real name is not Bill, but he gave me permission to tell you this.

Bill, an African-American man in his 60s, and his wife came to counseling for help with their relationship. During their third session, Bill made reference to something significant that happened to him decades ago. “Tell Tim,” his wife encouraged. This is the story he told:

During the 1960s, Bill was working as a volunteer to help register new voters in black communities. One day, he joined two other volunteers, one male and one female, in a small Alabama town. A driver dropped them off down the road from the town’s main entrance and reminded them that he would return to the same spot later that day. He would sound the car horn three times to let them know he was waiting. 

They completed their work and stood at the edge of town until they heard the three honks, then headed out toward the car. As they walked along the country road, five men stepped out from hiding behind trees. All of the men were white, wearing hoods, and carrying shotguns. 

“They forced us into the woods,” Bill recounted, his eyes tear-filled and his voice faltering. “They raped the woman while they branded me and the other guy.”

“Show him,” his wife prompted.

Bill lifted his left sleeve to reveal a rough circled “K” about 4-inches in diameter burned into his bicep. He lifted the other sleeve to reveal an identical scar. He put his hand over his heart, “They put one here, too, before they let us go.”

I cried. To this day, I am still processing all the reasons why his story affected me so significantly. I was abhorred by cruel acts of hatred. I was sorrowful over the pain one man suffered—that many others have suffered—just for being black and troubled by my awareness that I understand so little about that suffering. I was inspired by Bill’s obvious journey toward forgiveness. And I felt honored that he trusted me with a story that he has barely told anyone these past 40 years.

As I write this, I still feel the emotional effects of that session. It’s not a pleasant feeling, but I’m thankful for it. Thankful that God’s grace moves in our hearts to create empathy and compassion. Thankful that others have come alongside me in times of my brokenness and pain. Thankful that a client can make me cry.

Tim Tedder

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