Grieving Lessons: Saying Goodbye to My Therapist

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.

l the quiet voice thomas grieving therapist goodbye

L’s waiting room on the day of my last appointment. Featuring: my backpack, my gift bag for L, and my umbrella. Also, a radio, in which L occasionally set to play Ariana Grande before I came to see him.

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.

l listening to into you by ariana grande the quiet voice therapy grieving

My iPod on the floor of L’s office, playing “Into You” by Ariana Grande. We listened to it together when it first came out (because I was, and still am, in love with it).

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.

l teardrop glass ornaments the quiet voice thomas

I got L one of these teardrop ornaments as a goodbye present, because it represents my sadness and he said he likes glass. #twobirdswithonestone

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.

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22 Comments

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22 responses to “Grieving Lessons: Saying Goodbye to My Therapist

  1. rachel

    Mine moved to Belgium so I never had to deal with saying goodbye. Also, nice to hear from you even though I’m terrible at keeping up with people~

    • How do you feel about yours moving to Belgium, Rachel? Thanks for commenting and I’ll message you about Skyping or connecting, sorry I didn’t make it work when we were both in the Burg! I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.

  2. Priscilla

    The bond you have with L… it’s beautiful. I wish you Godspeed, Thomas. 🙂

  3. Domante

    This was lovely to read, thank you for sharing. I wish you well ❤

  4. Therapy has always ended for me with artificial cutoffs – usually moving away or the semester ending. The goodbyes have been professional and heartfelt – but I didn’t know how to grieve the good ones being over. Some it was fine that it was over, others I wish I had the chance to go back. The best therapist I had was while I was studying abroad, so I really can’t go back…
    I’m still trying to make therapy work for me.

    • It sounds like you’re viewing therapy as a process that has its ups and downs, which I think is healthy. Our culture sometimes idealizes therapy as a magic cure-all when in reality it can be difficult (because you’re processing and working through challenging emotions) and because you will connect with different therapists in different ways (because therapist are human to.) I definitely wish there were more resources on how to specifically grieve the end of therapy well, though there are similarities to other types of grief – and in the end grief is an individual and hard and unique process for everyone. Thank you for sharing your perspective, Noella.

  5. I’m sorry for your loss of therapist, but also thankful for your gain, in everything that you had with L. I truly know how you feel as I’m going through exactly the same – my therapy ended recently too.

    • Thank you for your solidarity, I really appreciate it. I am also grateful for your courage and vulnerability for sharing so much of your story through your blog. Keep writing, please.

  6. Finding a good, solid therapist like L is such a gift, and as such, such a loss when the relationship comes to an end. I’m preparing to have my final session with my beloved therapist soon, so thank you for sharing how intense the grieving process can be and reminding us that we grieve when we lose those we care about, so in a way, grief is worth the pain because it meant we loved someone!

    I am thankful you had L for a season in your life. I hope that as you grieve, you continue to find support, love, and care from those around you, and that you will treasure those memories with L for a lifetime.

    • Thank you for this meaningful and compassionate comment Lindsay, I really appreciate it. I am finding support from various sources (including this blog) and am cherishing the time I had with L amidst the grief. I am wishing you luck and sending you solidarity as you embark on a similar journey with your therapist.

  7. Thomas, thank you for sharing. Though I have never had a therapist, nor had to grieve of someone close to me, I am thankful for this post and for your quiet eloquence.

    I am so happy that you will be posting more regularly! I have just finished high school, and am transitioning to summer and university plans, so am hoping to post more often as well!

    Best (always!),
    Grace

    • Thank you so much for dropping by Grace, I’ve missed hearing from you and reading your posts! Congratulations on finishing high school successfully (from the looks of it at least with your fancy award) and I hope the transition into summer and university plans goes well. Let’s try to keep each other committed to posting more regularly.

  8. I would say the most important thing is to let the emotions come, name and accept them, let them pass through you and away. I’ve used this for all sorts of things from ending my own therapeutic relationship to dealing with my marathon training.

    This: “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.” is profound and his gift to you and yours to yourself.

    I knew it was the right time to finish with mine, but I can go for a “top-up” session if I need to, and having her know and remember me and have all the short-cuts makes all the difference. I also dropped her an email when I got married and ran my marathon, and she appreciated those.

    Occasionally I run into people who remind me of her and I cherish that.

    Be proud of yourself, yeah?

    • Liz, your thoughtful comments always make my heart smile. I am so grateful for your wisdom and for also sharing how you’ve coped with the conclusion of your own therapy – your vulnerability means even more to me because you have definitely been a mentor of sorts through this blog and our e-friendship. I am grateful to know kind people like you, and you’re right, I am proud of myself, thank you for reinforcing that. (: Hope you are well!

      • I’m glad I can bring some kind of view from my middle-aged perspective to help you along your way! I am OK, I had a surgery 3 weeks ago and have been struggling with my recovery a little – I really should have taken a moment to find another coping mechanism that wasn’t running and yoga (which I can’t do at the moment) as reading has had to bear the brunt and even I can read TOO much! But I’m getting there.

  9. Jas

    This was really lovely to read, though I’m sorry about the sad bits. I’m thinking of how I really do like my university therapist, but I always fall off the wagon and feel guilty coming back to her with my tail between my legs after so much time away. Underneath that I truly do believe in therapy though and your appreciation for the relationship you had with L seriously has me wanting to swallow my shame and try again. Thanks for this, Thomas!

  10. ALEXANDRA ROTH

    As a therapist, I can tell you that some clients live with me forever. I’m very clear that love is the active ingredient in psychotherapy –
    mediated by technique and theory, it’s true, but without love, it falls short of what it can be. I suspect that you will live in L forever, too, as he does in you.

  11. I’m sorry that you had to say goodbye to such a good friend, but I am grateful that you’ve had the good fortune to have crossed paths, enriching each other’s reality.

    Some days the grief can feel like another creature, separate from the self and therefore difficult to come to terms with, but when acknowledged as part of the self it can become much easier to empathize.
    In fact, it would be easier if we saw ourselves as own best friends, we’d be less hard on us.

    I concur with Liz on the line, “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.”
    On the very first read, I knew already that it contained all the sentiments of this post, condensed into that singularly raw sentence.

    Be well, mon amie. You do this world credit, not by merely existing but by striving for strength, compassion, and understanding in an uncompromising world with us flawed people, hoping for the best.

  12. Hi Thomas,
    I am so happy to find your blog through Goodreads. Yesterday I had a really good cry when reading this blog of yours. I can relate so much. Also I am going to say goodbye to my therapist very soon (by the end of August) after a year and a half therapy.
    I am an international student from China, and before I came to the U.S., I have never found a good way for me to talked about the issues and face the dark sides in my life. To be honest, I feel like finding my therapist and getting the right kind of help is the best thing I have ever done for myself –even better than getting a degree in this country.
    I know I am going to grief and feel sad for a while after I go back to my country this coming fall. But I also know that reading your blog is going to be a great comfort to me, always! (I hope the censorship on the internet there won’t be a problem for me by then!!) Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your life with us. What you are doing is incredible!

  13. I am touched by this blog post, Thomas. Your therapist is right – you are very brave. You inspire me.

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