Retirement of a Therapist – Part II
This is the second in a two-part series. For part I, see Retirement of a Therapist – Part I
When we left off, I had brought you to the point of finding out my therapist was retiring, my mixed reactions and my struggle to recognize that this was a major life event. I remember vividly at beginning of our next couples’ session, I very casually (VERY CASUALLY, who me? affected?) told BN that my therapist was retiring. He reacted very strongly and with a lot of concern, much the way someone would if you told them someone close to you was dying. I felt so pulled towards his reaction (maybe this was a major thing?) while simultaneously wanting to back away (don’t make me face how painful this is). Ambivalence about the loss and its magnitude was pretty much a constant throughout the process. To BN’s credit, he tried on a number of occasions to try to get me to open up about my feelings and I would minimize my feelings and change the subject. I’d NEVER get away with it now, but we didn’t know each other as well then. I think BN was still learning how hard he could push me at any given time and while I felt drawn to him, trust was still a distant gleam over the horizon.
A really wide and complex set of emotions were evoked by NW retiring. Sadness at losing a relationship so important to me. Gratitude for all that she had meant to me and all the growth and healing that had been accomplished. We spent a lot of time in session processing all of those feelings. Harder to process was my anger and sense of abandonment. I kept running around a track which started with me justifying her retirement by realizing that it was her life, that her decision to leave was not about me, but about her pursuing another career option (and one that she felt very called to, it had obviously not been an easy decision nor one made without a great deal of thought). But following after that was the little voice saying “yes, but she IS choosing to leave you.” She had always told me that she is committed to my healing and being there, yet she is making a choice that means leaving me before our work is done. If I really matter to her, how could she leave me? How could I have been so stupid as to trust someone would stay? This is what happens in relationship, you trust someone and you get hurt. Then would come the thoughts of all that she had done for me and I would be flooded again with a sense of how rich the relationship had been. That she had given generously and freely of herself and she deserved to be able to pursue other dreams. Which brought me back to the beginning and off on another circuit. I did manage to express some of the anger and feelings of abandonment, and my fears of not being able to function without her to lean on and how sad I was to see the relationship end. But I was so guarding against feeling them, that I’m not sure how strongly I brought them into the room. Especially as I often fought a lot of guilt about hurting NW or making the process hard on her. I know, she was my therapist and it needed to be about my feelings. Something I hasten to add, she made very clear. Old habits die hard, but I believe I allowed the feelings in and expressed them to the extent of which I was capable at the time. Looking back, I wish I had not held back so much.
I think the most useful part of having that time to process was that it provided us a chance to look back over our time together, to celebrate the triumphs and recognize the growth and healing. To laugh over moments we both remembered and to each talk about the truly important moments and how each of us had been changed by our relationship. Therapy is unique. All of our relationships eventually end. To be blunt, no one gets off the planet alive, so an existential truth at the heart of all human relationships is the question of why would I allow myself to move closer to this person, knowing that in the end, loss is inevitable and there will be a price to pay in pain? But therapy is the one relationship where the person of whom you are grieving the loss, is there to help you face and bear the loss. This period of reflection was the first installment of one of the most important lessons that therapy has taught me. Yes, pain is inevitable in relationship. But love is the answer to that pain. In looking back over our relationship, it became so obvious that pain was, by far, not the only thing that came out of this relationship (oh dear, the tears are hitting, it’s been awhile since I have thought about this so deeply.) There was so much love, and growth, and shared laughter and tears that happened. So much strength gained through the connection. NW’s presence and the fact that we were both willing to walk together in a painful place, meant that neither of us walked alone and a burden shared is a burden halved. Relationships are where we get the love we need to face the inevitable pains of life.
I would never have expected it but the ending turned out to be both affirming and satisfying. We exchanged gifts. I had bought NW a necklace that symbolized growth and she gave me a basket of pebbles with the legend of the woman who gave away a pearl (rocks as memorials had been a significant part of our work, so the gift meant a great deal). She also told me that I could have the blue pillow. Which I need to explain. 🙂 NW had a large blue pillow (3 ft X 3 ft ) covered in a floral pattern of white flowers. I LOVED that pillow. When I was processing really intense trauma, I would curl up around that pillow and hang on for dear life. I tend to use humor a lot and NW very much enjoyed it. Every once in a while I would make her crack up totally and completely loss her composure, which I loved. So at the end of the session when she told me that she was retiring, I told her I had only one question. When she asked what it was, I broke out in a grin and said “Can I have the blue pillow?” and we both totally cracked up. Fast forward to the end of our last session. She told me no one else had asked for the pillow and it was mine to take. Then we stood up and hugged each other and in a moment I will be forever grateful for, we both said “I love you” at the same time (the only time NW ever said those three words to me although I had known it for a long time. I also think it was the only time I said it to her.) There truly was a sweetness to the end, a recognition of how rich the relationship had been and gratitude for all it had given us. She opened the door to the waiting room and her next clients were waiting. I walked across the waiting room to the exit door while she stood in her office door watching me. The wife looked at me and suddenly asked “Oh is that your pillow?” NW and I both burst out laughing and said at the same time “it is now.” That poor woman looked so confused. I have always loved that our last shared moment was one of laughter.
It was difficult after the end, but not nearly as difficult as I expected. So much of the grieving had taken place before hand that there wasn’t that much left to do. I have never had any contact with NW again, at the time I never thought to ask if it was an option and she never offered. I have thought at times of trying to track her down because there is a lot in my life I would want to share with her. As time has passed and grief eased, I got her back. Grief is about letting go of the relationship you had and learning how to form a new connection without the person there (at least when the ending is on good terms). My memories of NW are good ones, comforting and reassuring and helpful. I do not know where she is or what she is doing and as far as I know, she doesn’t know where I am or what I am doing, but I completely certain about one thing. Wherever she is, she still loves me, and wherever I am, I still love her.
One last thing. I talked about how appalled I was when NW told me she was retiring, that I wrestled with why God was allowing so many bad things, one after another, to happen to me. My favorite Mother Theresa quote is “God says He will not test us beyond what we can bear, but sometimes I wish He wouldn’t trust me so much.” That’s how I was feeling, struggling to believe that good would come out of something so painful, that felt so wrong. Looking back now, I see NW’s retirement as a blessing in disguise. Okay, deep undercover. 🙂 As I mentioned earlier, we were stuck for a while. I think we had gone as far as we could go with one another, but I don’t think I could have brought myself to voluntarily leave on my own. Her leaving led to me working with BN. I never thought I could have another relationship with a therapist as deep and trusting as I had with NW. I was so wrong. BN is a perfect therapeutic match for me, not to mention that working with a man bumped me into some issues that were easy for me to avoid while working with a woman. I have experienced a tremendous amount of healing and growth with BN and learned to live a fuller life. This blog would not exist if it were not for BN. So in the end, NW’s retirement proved to be the impetus I needed to go find further healing. So although it felt like anything but when I first heard about it, in the end it’s something for which I was immensely thankful (although admittedly, that took a while! 😀 ).
I wanted to add a few links for further reading. There is one book I would recommend on terminating therapy: Good Enough Endings: Breaks, Interruptions, and Terminations from Contemporary Relational Perspectives. It’s a series of essays by therapists on the topic of terminations. Some are more scholarly and some are very personal. I found a lot of value in it.
And speaking of termination from the therapist’s point of view, I had written to Dr. Stein to ask if he wanted to add to this post from a therapist’s perspective and it turned out that he had already written one post on retirement a few years back and posted another a few days ago. You can find them here: Retirement and Questions You Couldn’t Ask Your Therapist: What Did Retirement Feel Like?
And for just a dash of serendipity, Dr. Jeffery Smith also recently posted about ending therapy: Attachment to Your Therapist: Saying Goodbye.