Stay In The Gray

The Heartache and Power of Goodbyes

As an immigrant settler, I have said a lot of goodbyes. I have said many see you later-s and see you soon-s that never manifested, and some abrupt goodbyes that I still regularly grieve. I know I’m not alone in this journey. I am currently in a pocket of change, loss, and growth, and I have been reflecting on the complexity and nuance of goodbyes and new beginnings. 

We say goodbyes everyday. Goodbyes to each other, knowing that we will return, or hoping that we will. Empowered Goodbyes to relationships that don’t serve us, or careers that don’t fulfill us. Forced, devastated goodbyes to people, land, spaces, and identifies that are taken from us. Reluctant goodbyes, tearful goodbyes, and the kind of goodbyes that make you unravel for a while, or sometimes in more permanent ways. The goodbyes you wanted to say, the ones you couldn’t say, or didn’t have a chance to say, and the ones you wish you never had to, or have to say. 

As therapists and clients, we work hard to collaboratively create a space where goodbye can hold love, power, gratitude, and grief. It doesn’t always unfold this way, but for me, this is the hope. I hope that people leave the therapeutic space, walking toward whatever discomfort may come up for them, standing firmly in the knowledge of their competency and power. 

Therapy is one of those unique spaces where there is an agreement about the temporary nature of the space. Clients come to this space with an understanding that the work will eventually end. A relationship with your therapist, in some ways, is not like any other dynamic you hold. There’s an acknowledgment that it’s a safe space that is yours, but there’s also an understanding that the goal is to achieve some sort of a shift (whatever each client is seeking) and then move on from the dynamic. Or at least from the therapeutic space and from the dynamic as it was once established- a therapist and a client meeting in an office, or in another gentle holding space, for a few sessions or perhaps for a few years. 

In some ways, that awareness of the end, the end of each session, and the end of the relationship as it once was, makes the time spent together in therapy that much more precious. It allows for clarity of purpose and creates boundaries within the session that enable us to work together with deliberation and unity. It highlights the preciousness of time and can amplify a person’s sense of agency. 

Even though a lot of goodbyes in therapy aren’t necessarily known in advance, the fact that there is, at some point, an impending goodbye can often help people connect to their sense of empowerment. Saying goodbye to one therapist, can create space for a new beginning- a new connection, a new way of working; new insights, and new angles that can be supportive to peoples’ growth. Just a gentle reminder, there are a lot of excellent clinicians out there waiting to share their therapeutic love with you.  

Sometimes we may fear change because it can bring up doubts about our own ability to hold space for a different way of existing. It is often, in fact, the desire for change or resolution that prompts people to begin their therapeutic journey. In a sense, we begin the goodbye process from the very moment we step into the therapeutic space. It is hard to separate the end of therapy from all the other parts. The end is integral to the beginning, to the middle, and to every other point in the therapeutic process. Perhaps if we see the end as a part of the process and not as the culmination of the process, it can ease some of the fear. Perhaps if we keep focusing on the time together instead of the eventual time apart, we can stay present to each other and to the connection. 

I’ve now been on both sides of this therapeutic equation: as a therapist and as a client. I’ve had a few different therapists over the years, and I am currently saying goodbye to many clients. Some of my clients are ready to part ways, some need extra support, and some are looking forward to possibly reconnecting somewhere down the line. The process hasn’t been easy, but what has warmed my heart is just how gracious people are! Just how resilient and hopeful and genuinely kind people are. This doesn’t surprise me, but it does fill me with a deep sense of appreciation for the people I have connected with. 

The reactions from the children I’ve worked with have been especially moving. I think kids get the idea of chasing dreams in a very real way. They can think in possibilities and in these great big, unrestricted ways. It’s humbling to witness and hard to part with. I hope to always be a source of support for the minds and hearts of children and youth. They are remarkable and deserving of so much space- much more than they are often given. 

One of the main goals of therapy is to strengthen and resource people by reflecting their worth back to them. Therapists are like mirrors who support people to experience their whole selves with agency, accountability, and in accepting and compassionate ways. The hope is for clients to internalize these realities, so that they don’t necessarily need to be reminded of them by their therapist in real time- because they have taken what they need from the work and can be their own mirrors now. So the bond endures, but the relationship in real time ends.

What might help clients with ending sessions is to focus on the quality of goodbyes, and to get curious about how each client would like this process to unfold. I think what makes some goodbyes hard is that there is a lot that may be left unsaid. Sometimes we fear them because there’s unfinished business that we couldn’t or weren’t able to tend to, perhaps some remnants of un-channeled, unspoken love and pain that need a soft place to land. 

Goodbye is a privilege! It is a process that unfolds at varying speeds depending on needs and many other factors within and beyond our control. Life does not always gift us with the opportunity to part ways in clear and loving ways. When we are offered this opportunity in therapy, as painful as it can be, I try to embrace the process with an open heart. Goodbyes extend us a few moments of grace and vulnerability to acknowledge each person’s heart and presence, and to honour the sacred power of connection. If we have been fortunate enough to gently guide the goodbye process and mold it into something that feels supportive for clients, then we have been given the gift of an extra layer of softness and love to step into with out clients, for a few moments, before we wave them off toward new adventures. 

In the therapeutic space, I like to focus on saying goodbyes that are authentic, heartfelt, and clear. A place where we invite people to speak freely, and hold space for clients to say what’s on their minds and in their hearts. A caring place where we assure them of their meaning in our lives, and continue to make them feel seen and heard. I can, without a doubt, or a moment of hesitation, say that I am a better therapist for knowing my clients. Even more importantly, I think I am a better person with a more expansive heart and a less rigid mindset because of my clients and because they have honoured me with their trust. 

As I slowly begin the transition from full-time therapist to medical student, I am deeply mindful of my gratitude for therapy. I feel incredibly privileged to have been able to do my own personal work, and to be in a position that allows me to witness people in all their layers and light. I have been gently held, guided, and supported by a community of therapists who inspire me and fill me with wonder. I am grateful that as a future doctor I will have a deeper awareness of how to care for people, emotionally and psychologically. I am grateful to stand firmly in the conviction that it is impossible and harmful to separate the psyche from the body and from lived experiences.

To anyone who has ever been kind enough and willing enough to allow me to witness them and their work, thank you. It’s a privilege and an honour, and although for many connections, this is also a goodbye, the memories of our work together and the ways that your presence has stayed with me and shaped me into the clinician and person I am today, are eternal. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.