We talk a lot about termination in clinical social work and therapy practice, but probably not enough. That’s understandable. The word “termination” doesn’t sound all that friendly. In the field, termination refers to when a client and therapist relationship comes to a close. As professionals, we allow space to talk about this type of closure and what it may bring up for the client, as well as for us. We all have a relationship with goodbyes.
In general we don’t like to think much about goodbyes. Rather, we put a great deal of emphasis on the beginning of things – preparing and planning for what we see as a fresh start. And the beginnings of what we approach with enthusiasm or excitement are the things we don’t really want to end – the satisfaction of a better job, the honeymoon phase of a relationship, the welcome of a new home or addition to the family.
Working with social work students brings the education of termination back into focus for me. Most people just get the live and learn version of how to face life’s inevitable endings. And it can be a rough lessen. It’s rare to set time aside in learning how to prepare for (or even welcome) an ending at the beginning, while understanding that the ending is really a transition into another beginning. It’s a loop that can make anyone dizzy.
Loop is a key word here. As much as it may feel like it, we don’t live in a linear fashion. Life isn’t a predictable straight line. It’s curvy and bumpy with twists and turns that force us to adjust and adapt. Being invited to express how we each experience that ride is a gift.
As therapists, talking about endings and what they mean to us is an important part of how we process and incorporate our work. Because our work brings us close to people. We spend time learning about our clients’ deepest wishes, aches, disappointments and regrets. When our clients leave or move on, we feel it. About 3 years ago a long-term client of mine died. When it comes to termination, death seems to be the ultimate. A life is over, yet life goes on. Death forces us to process a goodbye without the other person. That can feel very lonely. I miss that client. I hope he knew how much I valued him. His death didn’t cancel out the work we accomplished together over a decade. Rather, it reminded me of how meaningful such interpersonal work can be. It motivates me to keep doing what I’m doing.
A previous client who was feeling stuck in her career recently reached out to share an update with me - She resigned from a job that was no longer fulfilling her and has chosen to pursue work that is more aligned with her passions and future goals. Though she acknowledges she may be embarking on a less predictable path, she took the reigns and facilitated her own ending, in order to initiate her own beginning. Endings don’t just have to happen to us. We can be empowered to influence where the winding road of life will take us, with a few surprises along the way of course.
There are so many examples of how terminations can translate into opportunities for growth, learning and appreciation. Whether it’s the wrap up of a semester, the conclusion of a season, the last day on a job, or the end of a life, we can transition through and allow the loop of life to circle on.