The Sense of An Ending: The Importance Of Endings In Counselling
By Rebecca Mitchell
Published in BACP Private Practise Magazine
Life is full of endings and yet they can be difficult transitions. Beginnings are somehow different; often full of anticipation and hope – endings by 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 are immediately drawn 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 has ended; indicating that there is a void that needs to be filled.
Seasons of Life
The changing nature of Seasons also tells us that we should expect endings. We cannot pretend that summer is still here and wear our swimming costumes in December! Although conversely, I have spent an August holiday on a Bournemouth beach wrapped up thick woollies and a pair of sturdy boots, so perhaps that analogy does not 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 with them difficulty, doubt and even grief – sometimes for both parties in the relationship.
Yet an ending in a counselling relationship can also be an opportunity to have a healthy ending – which can be something new for a client who may have experienced very 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 so neat however, and some endings come as an unwelcome surprise from a client. Like many counsellors, I have had unexpected endings thorough 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 really 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 be a real shock to me?
Ending a healthy therapeutic relationship might be a way of a client seizing back the dangerous feelings of powerlessness and fear of betrayal that a trusting relationship can bring up. As Alana Massey writes about her experiences of abrupt endings with her therapists in the past “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?” (Source: Ghosting on Freud, Alana Massey)
Mearns and Thorne site three important elements in ending with a client:
Review the counselling process
This is a sure opportunity for goals that the client came in (which can sometimes be lost in the process) to be reassessed and revisited; looking at what worked and what is still to be gained in the future.
Consider whether there is an unfinished business between the client and the therapist
A real chance for congruence for both people – 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 have achieved and to work through further changes
Preparing a list in advance of relevant books, websites and other counselling illustrates care 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 have not had a voice previously in the ending of a relationship; or perhaps would not tolerate others voicing their thoughts and feelings about an ending with them.
Although expected, endings can come with dramatic finales. Feelings are bought 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 anyway 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 realized that for her it was an extremely rare moment of vulnerability.
She had not been anything like so emotionally exposing in the sessions we 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 had 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.
No Show Endings
When a client for whatever reason does not come to the session for an ending, it can leave you as a counsellor with lots of unanswered questions.
In that situation, I always write a letter to the client expressing I was sad that he or she did not come for an ending as I would have liked to say Good Bye. I also giving 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 with a proper ending session.
Endings May Not Answer All The Questions
An ending however, does not always provide the answers that we are always looking for. I have left counselling relationships and even, if I am honest, counselling training courses feeling confused and a bit deflated. I have frequently held onto 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 as having an ending as my total focus thinking to myself “If I can just get through this…”. At those moments, I am forgetting that the journey is as important as the destination and I move from the recognition of an ending to idolising it; “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 is has on our life” (Source: Robert Brumet “Endings” Unity.org)
I have 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 is something about a good ending that does empower us for our next relationship and task (whatever that is) to have a strong beginning.
It is my experience as a Group Facilitator that Group endings can be even more emotionally charged than endings with a one to one client. This I believe 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 should not 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 is just one member leaving the group. That group will no longer be the same group without that one member; recognising that this particular chapter in the groups 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 and painful might always carry some anguish for us. However, we can empower ourselves to have a different future and outcome; “Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending” (Source: Carl Bard).
Perhaps there is nowhere better to start this “brand new ending” than in the counselling room.
Person Centred Counselling In Action Dave Mearns and Brian Thorne Published by Sage 1988
Ghosting On Freud Alan Massey The Guardian 2/5/2017
Robert Brumet Endings www.unity.org. Extract from “Finding Yourself In Transition”
Carl Bard (1907-1978) Scottish Theologian Religious Writer Broadcaster