This past Saturday, I skipped my college’s graduation ceremony and went to a bookstore with two friends instead. I walked up and down the aisles looking for a book about grief, grief of any kind; I wanted to flip through the pages of someone else’s sorrow so I could process my own. Just yesterday I had had the my last appointment with my therapist, L, and I could not shake my sadness. I would miss L with all my heart – his snarky laugh, how his face relaxed when he went deep into thought, the way his eyes creased when he smiled wide – but I had almost no sources of solidarity. People wrote songs, stories, and scripts about flames and flings, family members, and sometimes friends, but almost never about the relationship between therapist and client.
After 20 minutes of searching, I picked up one of my favorite memoirs, Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell, a book about the death of fellow writer and close friend Caroline Knapp. I read the last line of the first page, “Grief is what tells you who you are alone,” and burst into tears. I covered my face with my hand spread like an awkward fan and shuffled into the restroom, where I sank to my knees in a stall and cried. I cried into my palms and into clumsy shreds of toilet paper, guiding myself through my feelings of loss and loneliness. L would be proud, I thought, as I sat on the grimy tile floor – that I could name these feelings, that I could handle them.
I grappled with all kinds of feelings on L’s black couch, as he sat just a few feet away in his reclining leather chair.
“I’m disgusting,” I once said, about a year and a half ago. I covered my face with my hands, too ashamed to look at him. “You think I’m a monster.”
“No.” L took a sip of water from his dark brown cup. “I think you’re courageous. For coming here. For speaking up.”
I lowered my hands and met his cool, unfazed gaze. An almost imperceptible kindness flickered in his eyes. Throughout the two years I saw L, I worked through a range of uncomfortable emotions: shame, for wanting affection from him and from others in my life; anger, at how various men in my life had abandoned and mistreated me; and sadness, because I had grown up in an abusive family, of no fault of my own. As an aspiring psychologist since the age of eight, I had always felt comfortable listening to and regulating other people’s emotions. L helped me listen to and honor my own, no matter how unpleasant. It would often happen like this: me, grasping, resisting my uglier feelings, and L, guiding me through them, one step at a time.
We bonded in other ways too, across dozens of sessions spanning my sophomore to senior year of college. Because of my background in psychology, not all of our sessions involved intense corrective emotional experiences, as I often used my own resources to take care of myself by practicing mindfulness and self-compassion. Beyond the realms of psychodynamic theory and DBT, we talked about my unending love for Ariana Grande, my former crushes on men that may have bordered on obsession, and life in general. At our last session, I gave him a five-paragraph thank you card, because I wanted him to know how much he meant to me: how grateful I felt that he saw me, all of me, and accepted me unconditionally. He helped me help myself grow into a more confident, self-possessed person. And even though I could always visit or call or email, I would miss him and our hour-long appointments and how we saw each other almost every week – because that part of our bond would never be the same.
About a week has passed since I saw L for our last appointment. He said we would both grieve our relationship’s end, and I felt happy to hear that, to know that he would miss me just as I missed him. At its worst, the grief he refers to fills me with doubt: did L care about me and did he express it enough? Will he still remember me years from now, or will I fade into the background as just another one of his clients? These questions haunt me the most in the mornings, as I first wake up and cling to my sheets, my mind in a haze and tears in my eyes as I remember that I will not see L again, not anymore.
But now, on more days than not, the grief makes way for an all-consuming clarity: that I would only feel this sad about our relationship ending if it meant a lot to me, to both of us. I will use the hard-won lessons from therapy to enhance my own work as a therapist, my relationships overall, and my outlook on life. I will always cherish the fun and funny times we shared, like when we watched Ariana Grande music videos together and how he laughed whenever I made inappropriate jokes about Justin Trudeau. I will remember when he said he felt proud of me, for trusting in therapy and in him, even when the process was painful and hard.
Perhaps even more importantly, I feel proud of myself, for seeking help and sticking with it and fighting society’s stigma against mental health and vulnerability. As a gay Asian American, I hope that my story will empower other minorities to embark on their own journeys of healing, no matter what anyone else says. Yes, I am grieving, and I am grieving something good – a healthy, challenging, and happy therapeutic bond with L, a relationship I do not feel ashamed of for a second, a connection that will last a lifetime.
I wrote a lot of this post while taking painkillers; I just got my wisdom teeth taken out on Monday. Still, I am back, with an updated “About Me” section too, so check it out! Does anyone have thoughts on therapy or saying goodbye/leaving your therapist? Or tips on grieving in general? I plan to post more regularly now – I mean it this time – so you will hear from me again soon.