Clients leave therapy for a number of reasons. Some of them relate to the skill of the therapist; some relate to the readiness of the client; some just to circumstance.
I believe that a good therapist is supposed to make herself obsolete (i.e. help the clients reach goals so they can move on from therapy, help them create other emotionally supportive relationships in their lives.) But with that said, some clients are facing intractable or chronic problems, or consistently encountering new ones. So sometimes, I get to know them for a while, sometimes years.
Ultimately, though, it’s a finite relationship, and that means eventually, I’ll have to say goodbye.
I’ve had situations where the client and I are both hanging on because we’ve come to really like each other. There’s less to actually work on in session, maybe there are more cancellations, we might try every two weeks instead of weekly. It’s the kind of drawn-out break-up that’s more of a fizzling out. The goodbye is a well-wishing, one of mutual admiration and appreciation.
That’s the good kind of grief, the uncomplicated sort.
The hardest goodbyes for me could fall under the heading of “complicated grief.” What that means is, there are unresolved issues. There’s messiness. For example, when the client came to therapy wanting a particular outcome, and it hasn’t come about. There’s a sense of failure about the enterprise.
The client could feel the failure is on their part, or on mine. I might have the same (or the opposite) assessment. Maybe it’s both of us, just a classic mismatch. But sometimes with therapy, it’s hard to tell what went wrong. All we both know is that we wanted something to work, and it didn’t.
It’s a messy break-up, in other words. We have to both let go feeling unsettled. And it is unsettling for me, especially when the goodbye scene never happens. Maybe the client cancels an appointment and never returns my calls. I never got to do the postmortem, never got to wish them well.
I’m a person who likes closure. I also like helping people. When I didn’t get either of those, it can be a tough pill to swallow. I have to look back over the sessions and try to do my own dissection, find my own answers, and move forward. Just like any other grief, I guess.
It’s strange work, in that sense: forming relationships for the purpose of advancing one person’s goals, and then dissolving them. I learn from them, and they learn from me, and then we move on. That’s true of the failures as much as the successes.
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