Stacy Feintuch first saw her therapist more than two decades ago, when she was having problems conceiving. “My mother-in-law found her, and I thought she was amazing,” says Feintuch, a writer and client relations administrator who lives in Livingston, New Jersey. After having two daughters, she stopped going to therapy.
Then, when her daughters were 10 and 12, Feintuch’s husband passed away from a heart attack. One day after his funeral, the therapist called — she’d heard about his death. “Would you like to come in?” she asked. Feintuch immediately said yes. “We just clicked,” she says. “Her husband had also passed away at a young age. She totally got me.”
Less than a year later, Feintuch’s therapist ended a session with news of her own: She was retiring.
“What? What do you mean? You can’t retire!” Feintuch recalls thinking. “I was a little angry,” she says. “She called me, she asked me to come back in and I did, and I still believe she must have known at some point that she was thinking about retiring. I wish she would have told me up front rather than waiting.”
It’s natural to be taken aback when a therapist tells you they can’t see you anymore because they’re retiring, moving or going on leave.
“Those relationships are incredibly deep. It can feel like abandonment or bring up deep grief or anger that they are not available to you,” says Charlotte Howard, a psychologist and CEO of Deep Eddy Psychotherapy in Austin, Texas.
But there are things both therapists and patients can do to make the transition as easy as possible. Here’s some advice, straight from the source: therapists who’ve both gone on leave themselves and stepped in for colleagues.
Talk in advance
Unless it’s an emergency, most therapists will give you at least a few months’ notice that they are taking a short, long-term or even permanent break from their practice. This lets you process your emotions and talk about your concerns before they leave. Although you might feel uncomfortable telling them you’re angry or anxious, speak up. “Sometimes we don’t want to hurt the therapist’s feelings, or we want to be supportive of what is going on in their life, so we may try to put on a strong or brave face and not let ourselves feel what our honest response is,” Howard says. “But then we have to grieve it later by ourselves, and we don’t get to use the situation therapeutically.”
In other words, your therapist is there to help you through exactly this type of scenario.
Don’t fear the goodbye
The farewell process can double as a healing process if you ease into it ahead of time — especially if past relationships haven’t ended well for you. “A lot of people have had bad goodbyes where someone abandoned or dropped them,” Howard explains. “So to have an experience where you are cared for and able to grieve with the person you are saying goodbye to can be healing.”