Saying Goodbye Really Sucks

Since we’re moving in a few weeks, we’ve been saying goodbye to things and people.

I still need to say goodbye to my favorite burrito.  I’ve been told they only have burrito-like things in Portland, so I had better stock up now.

Therapists get to say goodbye a lot.  Working with the population I do, often times I don’t get to say goodbye because I never know that this session will be the last time I’ll see a particular client.

When I first started this work, each time a client stopped coming or stopped returning phone calls was really jarring to me.  I worried about the client.

Was she ok?  Why wasn’t she coming? 

I also found that my feelings were hurt, even though I knew it had nothing to do with me.

Was I a horrible therapist?  Did I offend the client?  Was it something I said or didn’t say?

Lastly, I realized just how strongly I adhered to the value of expecting people to keep the appointments they make, to have a sense of accountability (even though I get now that, for my clients, the issue is much more complicated than that).

Eventually, with practice, I got used to it.  Clients come to our agency in crisis with many priorities other than therapy.  Clients are allowed to stop therapy for whatever reason at whatever time, and they don’t have to inform me if they don’t want to.  Ok, I can understand that.  Fair enough.

Under ideal circumstances, I get to plan out my goodbyes with clients.  A central theme in therapy is that I am supposed to model what a healthy relationship looks like, and a huge part of that is in saying goodbye.

Goodbyes are hard.  They suck.  They’re sad, they’re emotional, they’re bittersweet.  I’ve spent the past week and a half saying goodbye to a good many clients and it’s exhausting.  I feel horrible, and I’ve even apologized to some.  It’s true that I am used to saying goodbye to clients, but I’m rarely the one doing the leaving.  That’s what feels different here, and that’s what is adding an extra layer of yuck and guilt to these goodbyes.

I’ve often said that the good and the bad part about being a therapist is that when I go on vacation or leave the job, I am not just leaving a desk and a computer – I am leaving people.

People handle goodbyes in different ways.  I’ve had several clients stop contacting me after I let them know I was leaving, and while I understand that sometimes goodbyes are just too painful to face, I still feel sad and somewhat hurt.  In those cases, I feel like we’ve lost an opportunity for growth.

I try to honor the different parts of saying goodbye.  Yes, it’s an ending, but in therapy (like many things), it’s also a beginning.  It marks the beginning of the client going out into the world to use the skills she learned in therapy.  It marks independence.  It celebrates the hard work the client has done by attending sessions with me.  It’s a graduation of sorts, since my job is one that seeks to put itself out of business.  My goal, in that sense, is to get to the goodbye point, to make it so that my clients no longer need me.

One thing I like to do when ending therapy is to tell the client to take me with them.  After therapy is over, and you’re facing a situation that we talked about in therapy, if I was there with you, what would I say?  Would I have judgement for you?  Would I be your cheerleader?

Clients often take me with them without any prompting.  Some have reported facing a particularly hard scenario, or they’ve felt triggered, or they’d had to go to court, and they’ll come back and told me that they heard my voice in their head.  Not in a creepy, you need to be locked up kinda way, but in a very sweet and touching way.  In such a way that lets me know that this client is really working in therapy and is going to be just fine.

One time I asked a client, “When you heard my voice, what was I telling you?”

She rolled her eyes and adopted a semi-mocking tone.  “You told me to think about it differently.”

And I beamed.  So I really was doing a good job.  And I don’t really have to say goodbye.  Because my clients take me with them, and they stay with me as well.


Like Psychobabble on Facebook, so that we’ll never have to say goodbye.  And so you’ll also hear my voice in your head.


17 responses

  1. As a person who has been in therapy SO many times in my life, it was refreshing to read that sometimes you guys may be as insecure and neurotic as I am. Thanks!

  2. Oh, I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed reading this post! It warms my heart to know that therapists sometimes have a hard time with goodbyes, too. It was really bittersweet when my therapist said “well, I think we’re pretty much done here until you feel you need me again.” He was right, we were done, but it was sad!! I had grown to love our conversations and the way he made me challenge my perspective. I can’t imagine the number of people you have impacted, it must make leaving a little easier? I still think of my therapist at least once a week and often say to myself “what would Ken say??” just like you mentioned your client did! Sounds like you meant just as much to people as mine did to me :)

    Thanks for posting such an honest and open piece, loved it.

  3. I’m super awkward with goodbyes– not a hugger and not able to take things seriously, so it’s usually a string of jokes while I stand there swinging my arms about. I love this post though… I suppose everyone handles it differently and I imagine it is difficult to see so many people come and go through your practice without always knowing what will become of them. I feel that way at work a lot as well..
    Enjoy the move! Now you can put birds on things, huzzah!

  4. Okay, I somehow missed that you were moving to Portland so I scrolled back, and sure enough, you are. I can’t tell you how happy I am. Portland is now a cooler place because you’ll be here.

    I’ve moved around a bit, and I can relate to the goodbyes really sucking. I think some people don’t care, but I never get used to it. “I try to honor the different parts of saying goodbye. Yes, it’s an ending, but in therapy (like many things), it’s also a beginning.” Couldn’t agree more.

    I love that last paragraph. I have no doubt you’ve made a lasting impression on everyone you’ve met.

  5. I completely agree with your view about in person goodbyes as an opportunity for growth. Years ago I attended a self help workshop after which I’ve felt invigorated and ready to tackle some difficult situations like admitting that my student job sucked and that I had to quit. One of the steps I took which I felt put me in the “grownup” category was letting my sucky job know that I’m quitting right after I learned that I got the other job I interviewed for, even though the other job wouldn’t be starting for another month or so. Saying goodbye (or goodbye, I quit) can be unpleasant but part of being a grownup is not delaying the unpleasant.

    This was a great post. I feel inspired to think about my own goodbyes and write about them. Reading this I’ve realized I probably haven’t properly processed many of them.

  6. Endings are always hard for me… and I remember having to move and end all those relationships. Big hug, Lyssa. You have done such an important thing in advocating for and helping your clients. Hopefully you will be with them for a long time!

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