By Elizabeth Eiland Figueroa, LMSW
“Is your couch heavy?” a colleague asks me. She is buying my office furniture, and needs to plan how she will load it into her borrowed truck. I think of all the emotional weight the couch has bore during its time in the consulting room. “It’s pretty heavy,” I answer.
In a few days, I will be leaving my psychotherapy practice at Karuna. The process of physically disassembling my office has mirrored my internal process of saying goodbye. As I’m literally clearing space for Karuna’s new therapist to move into my office, I’m also making space within myself for the newness that is to come, in a different career direction as a school counselor.
Over the past ten years or so, moving among five cities, I’ve had to say a lot of goodbyes. I have said goodbye to communities that shaped me, relationships that nurtured and challenged me, and cities that I grew to call home; to friends and colleagues and ways of life. Although I’ve certainly said some goodbyes better than others, a few were clumsy or heedless. Some felt too big to process, and other goodbyes felt too big not to process. I’m still working through some goodbyes; others I’ve even avoided altogether. Goodbyes are complicated.
And: I’m learning that the opportunity to say goodbye well is a gift. Like countless other lessons, I’m learning this in the therapy room, right alongside my clients. My friend and fellow social worker, Garrett Gundlach, SJ, writes that “Termination is transparency: This is coming to an end. Let’s talk about it.” Even though these conversations can be complicated, this conscious goodbye can serve as a healing mechanism in the context of relationship – grist-for-the-mill, in therapy speak.
For me, these termination conversations have been an ambiguous mix of grieving the loss of what was and celebrating the anticipation of what will come. I feel the tension of grief and gratitude, guilt over my decision to leave and also ownership of it, care for my clients and care for myself too.
In these ambiguous days, I find myself thinking often about the idea of making space for something new to be born. All newness requires some kind of undoing – disassembling – and the transition from psychotherapist to school counselor is no exception. This empty space, the time between what was and what will be, can feel like a void, and yet I also trust that the creation of something new has already begun. Much of the work that takes place in the therapy room, I think, happens in space between what was and what will be.
I am also aware that many clients I sit with have not had the opportunity to say goodbyes in the past – to “do grief well,” as one client stated in session. People in their lives have often left too soon, too abruptly, too un-consciously. Termination can heal; it can serve as an after-the-fact stand-in for the brother, the father, the pregnancy, the memory, or the marriage that left too soon.
I am learning that termination can heal our beliefs about ourselves, too. It gives us a chance to name what we have learned about ourselves over the therapy process:
“I am not ‘too much’ for you, and therefore I’m not too much for the world.”
“I am worthy of being cared for, even when it makes me feel like a burden.”
“I can show others who I am and like what I see.”
“I’ve learned there’s nothing wrong with who I am at my core.”
“I know now that a different life is possible for me.”
“I can name what I need.”
“I am unconditionally loved.”
Not surprisingly, this learning has been mutual. My clients have taught me that I am trustworthy, stable, and capable of holding space for others. This knowledge is a gift I will treasure. I hope very much that at least some part of our processes have embodied spiritual writer Henri Nouwen’s definition of listening as hospitality:
“Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends.”
My clients have certainly welcomed me; we have made space for each other. They welcomed this brand-new therapist, and decided to trust me. They welcomed me when I may have been clumsy, when I said something challenging, or when I asked them to do hard things. They continue to welcome me even as I grope my way through termination. They are a brave group of people: artists, teachers, and seekers. It has been a privilege to witness their process, and they inspire me daily with their wholeheartedness, courage, and willingness to enter into this work. I will miss sitting with them.
I think back to my first few weeks at Karuna. Building my office space was like a barn-raising: my dad built my desk, my brother helped me paint the walls, my mom and I searched for throw pillows. Fellow Karuna therapists let me borrow their books, sound machines, and sage advice; they gave me their acceptance, friendship, mentorship, and loving-kindness. Every client that sat on the couch built up the space as well, trusting it could hold their sufferings and joys.
Now, as I disassemble the space in preparation for leaving Karuna, I’m struck by how similar it feels to building it. Indeed, space was then and is now being prepared for something new. During this season of goodbyes, I recall the words of spiritual teacher Anthony DeMello, SJ:
“Extend your arms
in welcome to the future.
The best is yet to come!”