capturing the beautiful calamity of healing in therapy

Are We Ever Ready to Say Goodbye to Our Clients?

The therapeutic relationship is unique in the sense that it may very well be the only relationship we enter with the intention of leaving. Our clients come to us with a concern of some sort, a malady that has impeded their quality of life, and once that concern is “solved,” the treatment goals have supposedly been met. And, naturally, a “goodbye” is next in order.

But nothing in life can be quite so black-and-white because problems are not singular. What is initially the presenting problem is layered with unconscious drives, rigid patterns of behavior, and entrenched beliefs about the self and others. Therefore, even if the problem is supposedly “fixed,” we rarely feel “solved.” Likewise, clients rarely feel ready to say goodbye. In fact, who ever feels ready to say goodbye to anyone? 

On the other side of the relationship lies the complex intensity that embodies the therapist’s goodbye. Successful termination with a client is what we strive for, as it validates that we have done our jobs correctly. It means that we have been able to reach our clients, guide them through what they need, and send them off ready to conquer the world. They will use our support and nurturance as a launchpad to take risks, and, ideally, they will channel our encouragement and words of endearment long after they live our offices. And yet, just like a proud mother waves goodbye to her child as she drives away from his freshman dorm, the emotions run bittersweet. Happiness and pride mixed in with guilt, worry, sadness, and fear.

Of course, not every goodbye ends this way. Many, in fact, come as a total surprise. With a planned termination, the endpoint is mutually understood. Treatment has concluded or external factors (moving, referrals, financial constraints, etc.) took precedence. In an unplanned goodbye, which happens frequently, the client walks out of the room and never returns, leaving many therapists with the bewildered, painstaking question, what went wrong?

Both situations have challenges. There are clients we struggle to reach, and as much as we may deny it, we are happy to see them leave, even if it is abrupt and unannounced. Nobody can connect with everyone, after all. Then, there are clients we do like- clients who touch our souls, clients who taught us something about the world and engaged our senses throughout the work, clients we gave everything to- and we don’t want them to leave. We don’t want them to leave because, we too, have enjoyed the closeness of our relationship.

As therapists, we are supposed to emulate a  healthy goodbye in a world where goodbyes are typically portrayed as negative or pessimistic. A healthy goodbye entails the full expression of feelings and the embracement of how they affect each of us. This includes vulnerability, introspection, and reflection on both parties. 

Depending on their clinical styles, each therapist differs in the termination process.I believe in raw expression. This means disclosing to my clients how much I will miss them and why I will miss them. They have bared their souls to me; they deserve to constantly know how much I care about them. If I cannot model this healthy processing of a goodbye, if I cannot express my own emotions lying in the space between us, why should I possibly expect the person sitting across from me to do it?

I think about former clients all the time. I miss them. I wonder about them. Just like old friendships or relationships, certain places or names will trigger a reminder of the impact they left on my life. I am grateful for these memories, even when they spark sadness, simply because they reiterate that I am a human having a beautiful emotional experience. Despite any and all training, clinical jargon, or fancy titles behind my name, I have emotions, fear the shades of abandonment, and struggle with the finite feeling of a goodbye.

Thus, every termination reminds me of my own emotional capabilities and journey as a human being. A goodbye, after all, can only hurt when we cared or connected. As a therapist, I do strive to care and connect with every client. It works better with some. It doen’t work well at all with others. Each relationship is different. The goodbyes remind me that therapy is just a stretch on the marathon that is one’s life. I am just one beacon of light- hopefully among many others. Therapy is not the entire race, and that is okay. It shouldn’t be.

I do what I can. I say goodbye the best ways I know how. We must be grateful for the closeness, connections, and relationships we do experience. They will all end. Friendships, romances, families. Existentially, every relationship eventually ends with or without our consent. The therapeutic one, however, may just be more obvious. We may never truly be prepared to say goodbye to anyone, but that may because, by nature, we are loving, social, and intertwined creatures. We are biologically wired to seek closeness in any and all capacities. It has been essential for our survival since the beginning of time.

Struggling with saying goodbye doesn’t make a person weak or stupid. It makes a person human. A goodbye is threatening. A goodbye can signify the potential loss of a needed resource. But a goodbye is part of the life, and we are all humans sharing this tantric experience of receiving and losing together. That is the take-and-give of this journey, and therapy is just the microcosm of what is already happening in the world.