How often in life are we able to end consciously and meaningfully?
Recently a client didn’t show up for her appointment. I was surprised because she had confirmed and had been reliable in the past. As usual I waited a few minutes before messaging to ask if everything was alright, if she had perhaps been held up. There was no reply.
The next morning a stark message from her partner saying she had died on holiday and been buried there.
I went into my time honoured, familiar coping strategy of setting my chin and carrying on. And then, because I am learning with age and experience, I emailed my supervision group and contacted some other colleagues. Messages of loving support flooded in, I soaked it up, and, for various reasons (including an early life filled with sudden loss), it took time to allow it to really filter through and land. It wasn’t until I actually spoke about it, heard my words out loud, and felt them received, that I began to reconnect with the feelings. I found myself able to reconnect with the client, to the fact of her death. That we wouldn’t meet again. Our therapeutic relationship was over.
Messages of support kept coming in. The paternal voice in me said
“This is all a bit over the top, life must go on”.
My own mothering, caring voice countered with
“What? Can’t it pause for a moment to honour this woman’s death?”
I was able to hear, and voice, the internal conflict, and see where the work lay for me.
In softening, opening to what it meant that this woman was dead, that our relationship was so suddenly and shockingly ended, I reconnected to all the sudden, shocking loss in my life.
Not all therapeutic relationships end this way of course. Sometimes, our clients end consciously with us, enter into an agreement and complete it. We have the experience of fulfilling that agreement and can go away feeling satisfied.
Acupuncture! I had that once ….
Perhaps more often clients are unable to face the ending, or don’t understand the necessity for it to be conscious, and simply cancel that last appointment with a vague message of maybe being in touch again. Or they don’t show up. We are left not knowing whether what we did made any difference. Or wondering if it was something we said, or didn’t say. The person may have a history of incomplete relationships. They may have moved from therapist to therapist trying to find THE answer. They might be that person you meet at a party who, on hearing what you do, says
“Oh, acupuncture (counselling), I had that once. It didn’t work!”
Creating Meaningful Endings
So, how to create meaningful endings for ourselves when the other person isn’t there to engage with?
There are probably as many methods as there are human beings, and you will undoubtedly have found your own over the years of walking this earth walk.
- Being a member of a supervision group means being able to take thoughts and feelings to a group of known and trusted people, who with certainty will listen deeply, hold and reflect, and, if asked, offer their suggestions. Whatever we bring, however we show up, we will be met, and held. A safe place built over years of entrusting one another with our real selves.
- Empathic listening. We can do this for ourselves through journalling, meditation, dance, walking, personal reflection time. And with others, connecting to our support groups, calling another who we know will receive us.
- We can make a meaningful and conscious ending with the client by writing to them, reminding them of the contract they made to give notice of a cancellation, and to pay for missed appointments. We can offer our availability for further sessions if they (and we) wish to continue, and we can explain the necessity for conscious ending, if we believe or discover that’s what they’re doing.
- And, its possible to make our own ending rituals, especially in the event of a client’s death. Something that has meaning for us, and that symbolizes the very particular ending of this relationship.
Ending With A Client Who Has Taken Their Own Life
When a counselling client took their own life after only three sessions I found myself wondering how on earth I could gain completion with them. I spent time talking to the coroner, learning that they provide the what, when and how of a person’s death, not the why. Strong feelings arose that this person had been let down by those who “should” have supported them. I felt some of those feelings myself, that perhaps there was something else I could have said or done – common thoughts for survivors after someone they care about has taken their own life.[i]
Eventually, after waiting for my creative brain to go through its process, I found the ritual I needed. I photocopied the notes (the originals must be kept for seven years after the end of a therapeutic relationship) and burned the photocopies with a solemn awareness of the task. Taking the ashes to what felt like the right spot in our local crematorium woods, I asked the spirits and guardians of that place to care for this soul, while burying the ashes.
In this way I was able to complete with them, lay them to rest in the best way I knew, and bring my own heart to more peace.
Different Experiences of Endings and Loss
We will all have had different experiences of endings and loss in our lives. These will undoubtedly influence how we address endings with our clients, consciously and/or unconsciously. Bringing our beliefs, values and assumptions to conscious awareness enables us to address ending in a more satisfying way – a way that offers both the practitioner and the client (even if “only” energetically) the satisfaction of completion.
This may all be new to you, or you may be an old hand. It is my belief we all have something to learn about how to “do” endings in a way that pleases us before our own, inevitable, end.
[i] SOBS – Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide – provide groups for survivors to meet for mutual listening and support. “We exist to meet the needs and overcome the isolation experienced by people over 18 who have been bereaved by suicide”.