Life is full of endings and yet they can be difficult transitions. Beginnings are somehow different, and often full of anticipation and hope. Endings, in contrast, may bring feelings of loss and emptiness. Think of a well-loved or gripping TV series when it approaches its final episodes (my thoughts immediately go to Line of Duty or The Night Manager). Often the media and audiences spend hours theorising about what will happen, and what will be the fate of the characters they have grown to know and love or hate. Usually, the next series to replace it is measured against the one that’s ended, indicating that there’s a void that needs to be filled.
The changing nature of seasons also tells us that we should expect endings. We can’t pretend that summer is still here and wear our beachwear in December. Although, conversely, I have spent an August holiday on a Bournemouth beach wrapped up in thick woollies and a pair of sturdy boots, so perhaps that analogy doesn’t work so well in the UK. But as a rule, nature, like life, has specific seasons, and to embrace the new one, we have to let go of the old. Endings in therapy – especially long-term therapy – can also bring difficulty, doubt and grief, sometimes for both parties in the relationship. Yet they can also be an opportunity to have a healthy ending, which may be new for a client who’s experienced painful or shocking endings in their relationships and life. A good ending then can be a positive model to draw upon in the future.
Not all endings are neat, however, and some come as an unwelcome surprise from a client. Like many counsellors, I’ve been told of unexpected endings through seemingly casual messages left on my phone – or my particular dislike: a ‘text dump’. Despite requesting a final session, this has sometimes not been granted. This has left me on more than one occasion with considerable self-doubt, which has only shifted with the support of supervision. However, working with survivors of sexual abuse for many years, and given the chaotic and traumatic lives many of my clients have lived and continue to live, should this really be a shock to me?
Ending a healthy therapeutic relationship might be a way for a client to seize back the dangerous feelings of powerlessness and fear of betrayal that a trusting relationship can bring. As Alana Massey writes: ‘In an ideal scenario, we would all approach our therapists with well- articulated, thoughtful reasons for terminating therapy, and both part ways the better for it. But if any of us were in such ideal scenarios, what on earth would we be in therapy for?’1
Mearns and Thorne cite three important elements in ending with a client:2
- Review the counselling process – This is an opportunity for goals that the client came in with (which can sometimes be lost in the process) to be reassessed and revisited; looking at what worked and what’s still to be gained in the future.
- Consider whether there’s unfinished business between the client and the therapist – Perhaps the approach of an ending promotes a sense of urgency for authenticity in the way that other sessions may not.
- Work out strategies for the client to maintain the change that they’ve achieved and to work through further changes – Preparing a list in advance, of relevant books, websites and other counselling referral sources, illustrates care and thoughtfulness and gives the client something to take away with them.
All these can lead to the possibility of the client experiencing a healthy ending. This may be a completely new experience for clients who haven’t had a voice previously in the ending of a relationship; or perhaps wouldn’t tolerate others voicing their thoughts and feelings about an ending with them.
Although expected, endings can come with dramatic finales. Feelings are brought to the surface in those final sessions that may have been buried for the earlier parts of the therapy. A 50-year-old client I worked with, who at times was extremely aggressive during the sessions and confidently told me I ‘hadn’t helped her in any way at all’ (along with, I feel I have to add somewhat defensively, her previous four other therapists), suddenly grabbed me as I held open the door for her to say goodbye on her last session and gave me a massive, tearful hug. As she sobbed and gripped my arm, our eyes met for the final time, and I realised that, for her, it was an extremely rare moment of vulnerability.
She hadn’t been anything like so emotionally exposing in the sessions we’d had. Seeing this as a real opportunity, part of me wanted to slam the door shut, cancel my next client and start the sessions over; but, of course, that would have broken so many boundaries I’d worked so hard to keep with her, so I didn’t. I lay in bed that night and thought about what the ending had meant to her, and how it had evoked such strong feelings.
When a client, for whatever reason, doesn’t come to the session for an ending, it can leave us with unanswered questions. In that situation, I always write a letter expressing I was sad that he or she did not come for an ending, as I would have liked to say goodbye. I also give details of further support available, either with the counselling service or in the local area. For me, that simple act of sending the letter, gives me (if not my client) some kind of closure that was denied without an ending session.
An ending, however, doesn’t always provide the answers that we’re looking for. I’ve left counselling relationships and even, if I’m honest, trainings, feeling confused and a bit deflated. I’ve frequently held on to the belief that once I reached the end point, I would somehow experience life and myself completely differently. I can really identify at times of stress, pressure and financial strain with having an ending as my total focus, thinking to myself, ‘If I can just get through this…’ At those moments, I’m forgetting that the journey is as important as the destination and I move from the recognition of an ending to idolising it. As Robert Brumet writes: ‘…to worship an ending is to give it more power than it deserves, to make it bigger than you are. To honour an ending is to acknowledge the impact that it has on our life.’3
I’ve looked to the ending as a magic fix, thinking that, once I get to this point, all my problems will simply disappear. And yet there’s something about a good ending that does empower us for our next relationship and task (whatever that is) and to have a strong beginning.
It’s my experience as a group facilitator that group endings can be even more emotionally charged than endings with a one-to-one client. This is because clients will obviously not just be ending with their counsellor but with a whole group of people who may have become extremely important to them,often sharing secrets and emotions that are not known to those outside the room.
Similarly, as with one-to-one clients, the ending shouldn’t come as a surprise to the group, and you may be aware that endings for a group can evoke especially poignant endings for clients with other groups in their lives. This could be families or communities they may have had to leave – sometimes with endings that have been painful, unexpected or messy.
Addressing the end early means that clients have time to adjust. This can be important, even if it’s just one member leaving the group. That group will no longer be the same without that one member,recognising that this particular chapter in the group’s life is now closed. Facilitating survivors’ groups has especially illustrated to me that an acknowledged, talked-through ending, can be a new kind of ending for survivors, where their previous endings may have been extremely fraught and traumatic, demonstrating that endings can be sad but they don’t have to be damaging.
Endings can be reparative, hopeful, healing even. Our past is unalterable, our history and relationships may have been destructive, painful and might always carry some anguish for us. However, we can empower ourselves to have a different future and outcome. As Carl Bard said: ‘Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending.’4 Perhaps there’s nowhere better to start this ‘brand new ending’ than in the counselling room.
Rebecca Mitchell is a counsellor and trainer who has been working with survivors of sexual abuse in various professional settings for 24 years. In 1993, she co-founded Into The Light, now a Community Interest Company and not-for-profit project which offers counselling, courses and training to survivors and those who support them. She has also published a self-help book for survivors, New Shoes, and has spoken at conferences, seminars and radio shows on recovery from sexual abuse. Rebeccca was nominated for the Cosmopolitan Magazine Campaigner of the Year award in 2011.
1. Massey A. Ghostingon Freud: why breaking up with a therapist is so tricky. The Guardian; 2 May 2017.
2. Mearns D, Thorne B. Person-centred counselling in action. London: Sage; 1988.
3. Brumet R. Finding yourself in transition. [Online.] www.unity.org (accessed 3 February 2018).
4. Bard C. [Online.] https://tinybuddha.com/wisdom-quotes/ though-no-one-can-go-back-and-make-a-brand-new-start-anyone-can-start-from-now-and-make-a-brand-new- ending/(accessed 3 February 2018).