Part of my job as the department head of social services when I worked for a skilled nursing facility was to have regular client contact. One morning, I stopped by to see how Mr. and Mrs. Carol* were doing. As soon as I stepped in the room I felt I was entering into a combat zone. The couple was sparring loudly about which television program they were going to watch: People’s Court or Sally Jesse Raphael. Not five seconds into the debate, in horror I watched a cup of hot tea, launched by Mr. Carol, fly past my head only to narrowly miss Mrs. Carol, his bride of more than sixty years. Not to be outdone, Mrs. Carol chucked her full tray of gooey hospital food towards Mr. Carol. For someone in her final days of a terminal illness, she surprisingly mustered enough strength to create a giant mess with food landing on the ceiling, windows, and walls. Indignant and incensed, I looked at my ninety-something year old patients and exclaimed with all the authority a twenty-three-year-old might command and said, “You two should be ashamed of yourselves!”
Back in my office, I reviewed the couple’s intake and psychosocial assessments. Their marital history was unremarkable and by all accounts it was a happy liaison. What was up with these two crazy characters? Then it hit me. They didn’t know how to say goodbye to each other. Of course, it is much easier to contemplate leaving someone who is on your last nerve than someone whom you feel a warm fuzzy connection with. I was able to bring this up later with Mr. and Mrs. Carol and they both acknowledged that their bickering the last few weeks had to do with their fears of losing each other.
I certainly understood some of what the Carols were resisting. When I was training to be a psychotherapist, the issue of termination of the client-therapist relationship was always a challenging one for me. Most schools of social work and psychology suggest that termination isn’t something that you discuss with a client a few weeks before the psychotherapeutic relationship ends, but in fact from the beginning. I often found myself resisting this discussion with clients until midway through the treatment process, which never served myself or the client. Eventually, I learned to bring up termination at the beginning of the process and found that this discussion helped the client to have more clarity regarding the beginning, middle, and ending of treatment. The timely discussion gave them time to emotionally prepare and assisted in reducing some of the grief relating to termination.
As a child, I moved around considerably and the same has been true of my adulthood. I remember when I left Southern California about eleven years ago that some of my friends expressed anger at me for leaving for the East Coast. I remember fighting a bit with a best girlfriend about something trivial right before I left. The truth was we had been joined at the hip for fifteen years and we weren’t sure what the separation would mean for us. Rather than discuss the issue, we had a couple of catfights to make the move easier. I also noticed that when she was feeling tearful and expressive, I was feeling cool and distant and when I was feeling scared and sad, she would be apathetic. If we were both feeling emotional at the same time, of course, we would have to confront the grief we were both feeling.
While I don’t have complete mastery in saying goodbye or in some cases farewell for a time, I do know my intention is to show up for the experience. It may make it seem easier to create a diversion of some kind to make dealing with the goodbye easier, but it is a spurious strategy. A Course in Miracles offers us that no relationship ever ends (this may be disconcerting for some!).
I once worked with a darling little boy named Charlie when I was an aide in a kindergarten setting. I was admittedly very attached to Charlie. It was obvious we both took the last day of school very hard but I tried to comfort him by telling him that we would carry each other in our hearts. About five years later, I saw him on a playground. As he ran by me playing ball with his friends he shouted, “Miss Jeanine, you are still in my heart.” This is the paradox of the goodbye, it may be painful but the truth is we take our loved ones with us wherever we go.
Mr. and Mrs. Carol* (Not their real names)