Intersecting healing journeys: Saying farewell to long-term clients

The past few weeks have been a bittersweet time for me professionally. I learned in January that I was accepted into the counseling and counselor education doctoral program at UNC Greensboro (yay!) and will start being a full-time student again in the fall. This means that I am scaling back my case load and transitioning out of practicing at my Raleigh location. With that comes a nuber of “graduation” sessions with long-term clients that won’t be able to continue working with me for various reasons once I make this transition.

When saying goodbye to clients, especially ones with which I’ve had long-term counseling relationships, I’m often reminded of just how deeply meaningful it is to do this work and what an impact my clients have on me and my personal and professional growth.

I’ve said farewell to several long-term clients in the past several weeks and it has been harder than I expected. Many of us in the mental health world are fed the message that we have to be detached and distant in the name of professionalism, avoiding allowing ourselves to be impacted or influenced by those we serve. Well, that idea is clearly rooted within the patriarchal medical model and doesn’t allow much room for the very real and very human connections that occur when someone spends a year of their life entrusting you with their sacred story.

Moreover, I don’t think my clients understand how much they impact my life and my story. I always say what an honor it is to do this work but I don’t think that clients often grasp how much being with them on their healing journey fortifies my own healing journey.

In The Gift of Therapy, Irving Yalom refers to therapist and client as “fellow travelers,” a spot-on metaphor for my conceptualization of this relationship. We’re on this journey together and neither of us necessarily has the “answers.” Clients bring their stories, their insight, and their desire to make meaning and move towards healing. Therapists bring their experience, education, their supportive presence, and their desire to help. We then take off down the path together, discussing back and forth about where to go next. Consulting one another at every turn and pointing out interesting scenery and wildlife as we move along.

The following passage from Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle, a Catholic priest working in gang intervention in Los Angeles, providers another apt metaphor for engaging in a therapeutic relationship. In this passage, he is meeting up with a young man whose brother had just died in a gang-involved shooting:

Pedro is out front waiting for me, and we greet each other with abrazos and a minimum of words. We hop in the car. Any worry I have about what “to say” gets punctured by Pedro’s insistence to tell me about a dream he had the night before.

            “It’s a trip, G. I had this dream last night. And you were in it.”

            And in this dream, Pedro and I are in this large, empty room, just the two of us. There are no lights, no illuminated exit signs, no light creeping in from under the door. There are no windows. There is no light. He seems to know that I am there with him. A sense, really, though we do not speak. Suddenly, in this dark silence, I retrieve a flashlight from my pocket and push it on. I find the light switch in the room, on the wall, and I shine this narrow beam of light on the switch. I don’t speak. I just hold the beam steady, unwavering. Pedro says that even though no words are exchanged, he knows that he is the only one who can turn this light switch on. He thanks me for happening to have a flashlight. He makes his way to the switch, following the beam with, I suppose, some trepidation. He arrives at the switch, takes a deep breath, and flips it on. The room is flooded with light.

            He is now sobbing at this point, in the telling of the dream. And with a voice of astonishing discovery, he says, “And the light…is better… than the darkness.”

            As if he did not previously know this to be the case. He’s weeping, unable to continue. Then he says, “I guess… my brother… just never found the light switch.” Possessing flashlights and occasionally knowing where to aim them has to be enough for us. Fortunately, none of us can save anybody. But we all find ourselves in this dark, windowless room, fumbling for grace and flashlights. You aim the light this time, and I’ll do it the next.

            The slow work of healing.

            And you hope, and you wait, for the light – this astonishing light.

This is the work of healing. This is the work of counseling. Standing alongside someone in a dark room, fumbling for flashlights, and waiting for clients to take the courageous steps towards turning on the light.

And whether they know it or not, many of my clients have held up flashlights for me over the years. As someone who has done, and continues to do, my own healing work, some of my greatest personal insights have come as a direct result of things that clients have shared with me. This includes watching clients make their way through an experience similar to one I’ve had (and often handling it more skillfully and with more grace!) or simply being inspired by the fantastic resilience of someone walking through the dark room.Whenever I start to think “I’ve seen this before” or “I think I’m really getting the hang of this,” a new client, experience, or presentation will show up and I will be reminded that I am a perpetual student and my clients are my most important teachers. This work has a way of keeping us humble.

So when it comes time to say farewell to someone I’ve been working with for a year, my heart is heavy. Goodbyes are hard. And I can rest easier in the understanding of what a privilege it was to be on the journey together and to have our paths cross for a time. I can foster a sense of gratitude for what I’ve learned and for the beautiful moments that we spent together exploring the depths of what it means to be human.