When Therapy Ends Unexpectedly

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This job is hard. Yes, we sit and we talk and we listen. The job rarely requires us to do the heavy lifting of construction, or the rigorous routine of running laps around a restaurant, or quick calculations of medications.

But the responsibility of holding the sacred space, of guarding others’ secrets, of bearing witness to human suffering – that is a physical business. We leave bits of us behind. We carry pieces with us. It becomes a bit of a soul exchange.

As therapists we are taught to constantly monitor our motivations in sessions with clients, and for good reason. The relationship is unique, unlike any other. We must constantly ask ourselves: What am I asking of this client? Is this inquiry or direction motivated by the client’s need – or my own?

Because in therapy, it should always be about the client. The therapist’s needs shall not ever drive the therapy. Now, that does not mean that needs of the therapist get buried and forgotten, neglected. We, as therapists, must always be self-aware in order to see the full picture of what’s transpiring in the room.

Sometimes the needs overlap. At those times, we must be sure to pay attention, and fulfill those needs outside of session, freeing up the space to attend fully to the client.

As a therapist, I value continuity of care and trust. I want my client to trust that I believe in her, and I will accompany her through to the other side – wherever we determined that endpoint to be at the start of therapy. I often ask in my first session with clients, “How will we know when our work is done here?”

Therapists stick it out with clients to meet those goals. We do not abandon our clients.

Years ago, when I had just finished graduate school, I had the awesome privilege to work with adolescents living in group homes. These boys were in foster care or in custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).

I met with each of them individually at least once or twice each week. We met altogether for group therapy four times per week, covering topics like social skills, grief and loss, trauma, depression, anxiety, and psychoeducation and other life skills. That was during the school year. Over the summer, I saw them every day, all day, during camp.

Over time, despite how much I loved the work with the kids, the goals of the agency seemed to encroach on what I considered to be best practice. It eventually got to a point that I decided I needed to move onto a different agency more client-centered and driven by clients’ needs.

I gave verbal notice that I would leave in 30 days and handed a written letter to the clinical director, and then proceeded to the community to meet with clients and tell them I would be leaving. There was work to be done around my departure – these kids had forged a bond with me – and I cared deeply for each of them.

Every single one of the children came into the group after having been taken from their home. In their young lives, they had come to learn that people didn’t stick around. Not the ones who looked out for you, anyway.

We needed to process what my leaving would mean. They needed it. I needed it. This was one of those times when needs overlapped.

Before I could go into the first house, the agency called me and told me they thought it was better if I had no further contact with the clients, for fear of disrupting the group home. The director had chosen to break the news to the kids instead.

I did the best I knew how at that point in my career. I’m not sure how I would handle it differently now. Disregard the order, go see the kids anyway? I turned my car around in the parking lot and headed home. Early the next morning, I was shaken awake by this poem hurtling through me. It is a mosaic of every child I worked with during my time at that agency. I dedicate it to them now – the goodbye I never got to say:


I didn’t know it would be the last time we’d ever part

when last we spoke.

Now the memory is a blur – what we did, what was said.

I remember the first time I met you-

So angry you had kicked a chair through a wall

and sunk down against that wall, with fierce tears shielding your eyes:

“I know I’m supposed to do what God wants of me, but how am I to do that when He keeps taking everyone I love away?”

Then you flicked your eyes up at me, cutting across the mountains of your knees-

“Do you know what that’s like?”

When first I met you, I thought you were the most adorable child I’d ever seen

and I fell in love immediately.

You took my hand and led me down the steps of a labrynth

each level, I was thinking “Ah, this is why you’ve come here”

and you pausing, to beckon slowly to the next level deeper, “but wait, there’s more.”

Layer after layer, you revealed shamed secrets that before were met with blame and disbelief.

It took some time to get you really talking,

and once you did, we had to work to keep you from shouting heartbreak at every creature you encountered.

Before I met you, I was warned –

fresh out of jail – he’ll be in denial – minimize everything – avoid responsibility.

When first you spoke, I was floored

by your beautiful insight-

conveying how one can feel so small to feel insignificant, how could our actions hurt anyone else?

and voicing that now you see, and it is time to return the love, and accept the love, of those who have ever cared.

how your anger gradually gave way to anxiety about how you would become the Man of the family, if your mother were to die while you were separated.

So many cautioned me that you were manipulative-

only out to get your way.

Colors loudly played out a boy who needed so desperately to be contained, secure

to be afforded some amount of predictability in an unstable world.

You told me you were certain that people could die of sadness – that your father had

and if only you could have been there to make him happy, he’d be with you now.

I remember driving to you on Saturday mornings,

coffee steaming and pavement spinning out before me

brilliant sunshine dancing to a tune that always reminded me of you.

And I would bring those songs.

You would laugh at first, at my taste in music.

Then the words would find their way into you

and something would connect

and you would meet me with this impenetrable gaze of awe:

“I can let go of what I now know has had a hold on me.”

Leaving in a haze of summer heat,

You laughingly, with abandon, called out to me one day

“Bye, Ms. Meghan! I love you!”

My heart clung to my throat, and I squawked, “Bye! See you tomorrow”

Silently sending a message that from now on, ‘See you tomorrow’ meant

‘I love you, too.’

I see you now,

Growing into the frame of a young man

-Donning your pinstriped suit to prom

-starting Friday night at the football game

-explaining loyalty and integrity to the younger boys

and after divulging a history of smoking and selling, robbing and catching a bullet in the clavicle, sitting up straight

with all the caliber serious can muster

you said, “It’s time to make a change –

I am gonna BE somebody.”

And the room dropped to an awed silence – everyone wanted to applaud you, some did

others hid tears.

The day I deemed would be the best to leave

I planned to say goodbye

To tell you how immensely proud I am of you

How grateful I am to have known you

How you have inspired me and expanded my world in so many wondrous dimensions

To look at you once more and make sure that you know,

that you are loved, and worthy of love, and capable of all the majesty that bestows.

I did not get that chance.

I suppose my point is this –

we can never fully know the exact moment our lives will change

or how much time we have.

so make every moment count.

do not take for granted a single encounter,

an opportunity to grow and connect.

The strength you had to trust, to be honest, and fiercely courageous, too –

that was all you.

I’ll miss you, and I wish you the best.

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