How are you with farewells?
Do you avoid them? Leave the door ajar? Just walk away without explanation because if you actually said goodbye, the loss would be too real, and it might just hurt too much? Or the opposite: you actually care so little about the other person that you are quite happy just to flick the relationship switch to “off” and give them the silent treatment, a horrible practice known as “ghosting”?
Saying goodbye to someone that matters to you is saying goodbye to the person you were when you were with them—a better version of you perhaps; a funnier, smarter or more charming you. Perhaps a more innocent you. A younger you.
We have to say goodbye for lots of reasons. Someone has died or they are dieing. Or they don’t want to see you anymore. Or you have woken up to the fact that, though you really love them, you can’t love them in the way they need you to, or vice versa. Sometimes you’ve just had enough: the pain outweighs the gain—or you realise you have been in denial all this time about the pain and/or the gain you imagined was just a fantasy.
If you both try, you might be able to navigate through your turbulent waters, and find a way back to each other, and start over, perhaps with some new and different rules of engagement. But of course you might not be sure you want to--whether to stay or go is one of life’s toughest questions.
Perhaps this time, however, it really is the end. You might discover you can end this relationship without a moment’s hesitation, without a single backward glance, and you realise you only thought there was love. You were in love with the idea of love. But other times it is hard to say goodbye to love, and you are heartbroken. The amount of pain is proportional to the amount of love. If it hurts, it means you are human. You are alive.
Goodbyes and badbyes
What’s your history with endings? Some good, some bad? One journal article itemises different kinds of ending (in the context of saying goodbye to your therapist, but universally applicable), all of which generally feature in every goodbye to greater or lesser extent. These include:
• Ending as loss. The other person occupied a huge part of your life and now they are gone. Whether or not someone died, it feels like a death. It triggers the memories and feelings of all the other losses, rejections and abandonments in your life, some of which—especially those in childhood—may have been quite traumatic. You try to end with love. You mourn. It will take time, but not just time.
• Ending as transition. You have outgrown the friendship, partnership, flirtation, romance, fantasy, engagement, marriage, friends+, FWB, NSA or whatever it was. Change is inevitable. The mighty river never stands still. This kind of ending is a rite of passage: You grow up, or have some therapy and wake up, and your nerdy school friends or your college sweetheart or your work buddies from your old job or this or that particular subgroup you used to hang out with no longer fit with who you have become. You might try, but you can’t turn back the clock. Be glad for what you had—and move on.
• Ending as metamorphosis. Sometimes an ending marks a dramatic turning point in the life of at least one of the protagonists. Some kind of shift to a true self perhaps, or awakening, or enlightenment—a catalyst to saying farewell. Sometimes in turn, for the other person, the farewell itself is the catalyst for change. Such endings can be transformative, pivotal, life-changing. You say goodbye not just to a friend or partner, but to a worn-out version of you. Your familiar, comfortable cocoon falls away and you emerge, reborn as some kind of a butterfly. The wrenching flavor of such an ending/beginning is captured in Mary Oliver’s powerful poem, “The Journey.”
New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings
Another client kept all the letters from a former partner that he still hankered for. One day, he decided to burn them all, and he was astonished how intense the flames were—the old love letters produced a great deal of heat and light. It was a symbolic experience: he realised how much energy his continued infatuation took from him. After the bonfire, he was able to reclaim that energy, rouse himself from his post-break-up doldrums, and move on in his life with vigour and confidence and a renewed sense of love.
• “Casablanca”: In wartime Morocco, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) rekindles an earlier love, forged in Paris, with Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). But she is now married—to an underground resistance leader, a fugitive, on the run from the Germans. Rick engineers an escape for him, but at the 11th hour, he makes Ilsa get on the plane, too, telling her she would regret it if she didn’t: “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” Rick stays behind in Casablanca. A noble sacrifice? Or having regained the love, perhaps he didn’t really want the actual woman, too.
• “Where the Wild Things Are”: In Maurice Sendak’s classic 1963 children’s picture book, young Max is sent to bed without supper for bad behaviour. His bedroom magically transforms into a jungle, and Max gets on a boat and sails to a fantastic land where wild beasts roam free. He is able to tame them with a magic trick and is hailed as the king of all wild things. Then he wants to go home:
But the wild things cried, ‘Oh please don’t go--
we’ll eat you up—we love you so!’
And Max said, ‘No!’
The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth
and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws
but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye
A young boy gets to know his emotions, his rage, his scary shadow side, but refuses any more to live at the mercy of these things—he says goodbye to that old, exhausting version of himself and grows up. (How’s your relationship with your inner “wild things,” by the way?) Back in his bedroom, Max discovers supper is waiting for him—still hot.
What do these endings have in common?
• A decisive, dramatic finality
• An action taken with a great deal of courage
• A sense of wisdom prevailing over convenience
• Style, and some good lines. Yes, we’ll always have Paris.
But fiction is easy. Real life is messier and far more complicated.
Our time is up
How do you say goodbye to your therapist? Do you just stop coming without warning, despite the fact your therapist may have a termination clause in their terms and conditions (I ask for a notice period of at least two sessions). Such a clause may sound self-serving for the therapist but it’s really for clients, who are denied the benefits of a proper ending if they don’t show up. It’s an opportunity to review and consolidate all the work you've done, to say what you’ve been trying to say all these weeks, to offer up feedback, to have a sense of direction going forward. To say goodbye.
“Many clients come to therapy with issues about unsatisfactory endings or losses,” write Emmy van Duerzen and Martin Adams. “It is important that the client does not experience the end of therapy as something else that ended unsatisfactorily.”
A recent article in The Guardian—“Breaking up with a therapist”—quoted a 28-year-old woman from Seattle, who has ended three of her relationships with her therapists by “ghosting” them: “The whole point of having a therapist is not being emotionally invested in them, [and] they aren’t emotionally invested in you if they’re doing their job right,” she said.
I disagree with this point of view. Therapy without emotional investment is like decaf coffee—nice enough but missing the key ingredient. Without some sense of understanding, acceptance and connection, without feeling anything, the potential for lasting change is limited.
Clients often wonder how important they are to their therapist. “You must have a lot more interesting clients than me”—I’ve heard that a few times. Or the other day a client stopped midsentence and said: “Don’t you ever get bored of listening to this shit?” There’s an assumption that for the therapist, saying goodbye must be easy, maybe even a relief in some cases. It’s never written about, but for the therapist, too, goodbyes can be hard.
One thing about goodbyes between people who love each other is that they are never really final. Maybe the goodbye doesn’t hold, and you get back together. Or you keep bumping into each other, or you haunt each other on social media. Even if you stop seeing someone you love, they have become part of you, and you part of they—powerful “internal objects” that continue to grow and influence you. The love, the energy, the relationship—these things keep evolving even in the absence of any further refuelling by each other’s actual presence. Human connections can thrive despite a lack of geographical proximity. Or even a lack of the loved one being alive. Jung was 21 when his father, a pastor, died. His father appeared in dreams throughout his adult life. He became a much greater guide and teacher to Jung in death than he ever was in life. Death shall have no dominion.