The death of a therapist, coach or mentor – how to cope.

Coping with the death of a therapist, coach or mentor (c) KarinSieger.com

The death of a therapist, coach or mentor can be hard to cope with, especially if you have established a close bond, if the death is sudden and if there was no shared ending – no goodbye.

I know. It happened to me.

Let me explain why this loss can be extra hard and what to do. I also offer one off support to help those affected by the death of their therapist, counsellor, coach or mentor to reach appropriate closure and peace with this experience.

1. Why can the death of a therapist, coach, mentor or other trusted support be so difficult to cope with?

When therapy, coaching or mentoring work well, the other can become an important person in our life. When this alliance works really well, the other can become the one person, that knows more about us than most or even anyone else. And their death is bound to hit us hard.

Depending on your own experience you may know what I mean, or not. You may agree, or not. And that is ok, too.

Therapy, coaching or mentoring can work for different people in different ways. And sometimes it does not work out.

The fact that you are reading this article suggests you may have been affected by the death of a trusted source of support and understanding.

You may

  • have started on a process of discovery, processing or finding solutions and your goal has not yet been reached;
  • feel like hanging in the air, perhaps worse than when you started;
  • dread having to start the whole thing all over again with someone else;
  • not want anyone else.

You may be left with mixed feelings, including anger, disappointment and a sense of abandonment.

When your therapist, coach or mentor dies, then you may feel very alone and not easily understood by others in your grief:

“It’s not like they were family or friends, right? They provided a service. It was their job. They got paid for it. You will find another … If you feel so much grief, then perhaps you got too close, and then perhaps it was not good or professional support  ….”

When it happened to me, the shock was immense. I was in the middle of a major health and existential crisis. There was no warning, no goodbye, no funeral to go to, very few people to talk to about it, and very few people understood, why this was so painful. I needed to figure out what to do for the best.

 

 

2. Suggestions to help you cope

  • Depending on the circumstances of your own experience, you may be offered some help by others, who your therapist, coach or mentor may have instructed in the case of their death.
  • You may want to think of a ritual / ceremony / activity  – an act of remembrance and letting go you can do by yourself, in your own good time.
  • You may want to re-visit the place or the neighbourhood where you met, and through the physical closeness find the start of closure. This may be painful, but it can be an invaluable start.
  • Whether you had face-to-face, online or telephone meetings, you may want to think about setting aside some time on the same day and at the same time, when you would have had your session. Have a session by yourself, in a place where you feel comfortable, safe and private. There, try and have an imaginary conversation with the other. Talk about how you feel. Say what you want to say. See how you feel. You might need this ‘session’ a few times before you can say good-bye.
  • You can write a letter. Putting feelings into words can help process difficult emotions and get some perspective, clarity and direction.

Here is what I did Letter to my dead therapist – Read More

3. Support I offer

If you would like some help with working out what you need to find closure, then you might like to know that I offer one off consultations in person or online. This can give you a chance to talk things over, have someone listen and help you explore, what is right for you to grief and find some closure.

4. In summary

The death of a therapist, coach or mentor can affect us in many ways. The loss and grief can be complex and you need to take extra care.

Feel free to use your imagination and think bold in terms of ‘what’ and ‘when’ may work best for you.

Grieving and closure are personal and should not be rushed. But neither is it good to get stuck in the grief process and suffer in silence.

 

 

Image courtesy of Escher

Thanks to all my readers, my website is among the Top 10 UK Psychotherapy Blogs


 

29 Comments

  1. Karen, I lost my amazing therapist, Linda, to cancer a few weeks ago after seeing her well over twenty years. Obviously you understand the torturous level of this awful situation. Others in my life have been supportive and caring, but can’t really KNOW the devastation this grief brings to me. I truly came to love Linda over those decades and very deeply appreciated all she brought to my life. Yes, she was my doctor, so there remained obvious personal boundaries. Yet I still considered her my closest friend in all the world—a uniquely wonderful woman, the strongest I’ve ever known. From the very moment we met there was an INSTANT connection: she “got me” right away—seeing me for exactly who I was and what I needed. Over the years she became my deep counsel on all questions, my enthusiastic cheerleader for all endeavors, my Life Coach in love, marriage, work, writing, everything—and now I’m feeling so lost and empty without her. It’s hard to imagine life after Linda, and I struggle with trying to carry on. I’ve now started seeing a grief counselor simply to try to get through this awful period; I know I need the help, and it does feel better to talk. But how on earth am I ever going find another therapist able to take up even a portion of Linda’s un-fillable big shoes?

    • Hello Jeff,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts so powerfully. I am sorry to hear that Linda has died and for your loss. It is now over 12 years since my late therapist, Ben, died. The shock and pain remains but it has softened and over time I was able to develop acceptance of and make peace with the fact that everything and everyone is impermanent – as are we. That may sound of little help now. I tried focusing on what I learnt in my therapy with Ben that may help me with his loss; he has remained with me. Indeed he his here while I write this. A therapeutic relationship is special, complex and unique. Another is our witness and confidante, when we know little about them. When our witness leaves through death (often without a scheduled or prepared ending of our therapy) we are ‘lost’ in a number of ways. Bereft of our witness who has taken all we shared with them. You were blessed to have Linda’s wisdom, now you can keep that alive and continue to pass it on. That is part of her legacy (and yours). When therapy comes to an end (including in this way) we leave the protecting nest and need to survive and grow based on the emotional nourishment we have received in therapy (I acknowledge that not everyone may feel this way about their therapy). It is wise to have grief counselling to process the understandable loss. It is a process. Be patient, be grateful for what has been and carry that forward. Be kind to yourself. Go well.
      Very best. Karin

  2. Sadly I’m in the position of having lost a long term therapist to a sudden death. I’m grateful for your acknowledgement of this real and complex grief.

    I wish all therapists are trained to consider this topic and take some time to reflect on what protocols there are in place particularly if they are in solo private practice.

    My wish list.

    1. To be informed of serious illness or death so a patient is not simply left abandoned or left wondering.

    2. If possible to be given some opportunity to say goodbye. Such as a letter or memorial for the patient group.

    3. An offer for a follow up with a colleague/referral.

    For those in a similar position to myself, we are in a group we never thought we would belong to or saw coming. Peace x

    • Hello, thank you for sharing your own experience and views here and on another article page. I am sorry to hear your therapist has died. It is a very complex experience of loss and grief. I think your suggestions are very thoughtful and many therapists have a backup in place. With very best wishes for you. Karin

  3. I lost my life long therapist last week to an unexpected fatal stroke. She had been my therapist on and off for over 30 years, essentially my entire adult life. In my mind she WAS my mom. I’m devastated but feel like I can’t talk to anyone about this- I kept my therapy life relatively private. I feel so lost and devastated. I’m trying to function as a parent and all other parts of my life- but I just want to curl into a ball and cry. The sad thing is – she would be the first person I would call to talk about this loss, and I will never get to talk to her again. I am lost. I read your steps to get through this. I’m going to try.

    • Dear Laura, I am so sorry to hear about your loss. And I can see why you feel the way you do. Please do give it time. This sudden loss is traumatic and grieving will find its path through this pain somehow. It might feel so overwhelming and too much just now. In time you might want to check out my other articles and audio talks on grief. They are all listed here https://karinsieger.com/grief-collection-favourite-articles-podcasts/
      Your therapist may also continue to accompany you now – in your mind and in time you may find an internal dialogue with her.Do look after yourrself. Loss and grief do take energy away from our day to day life. With very best wihses. Karin

      • Dear Randi, thank you for getting in touch and sharing the link to your wonderful YouTube memorial video for your therapist. I know you shared it on the other post before. Good to have it here as a resource, too. With best wishes. Karin

      • Dear Randi, I’m very sorry for your loss. This is a beautiful tribute. I really got a sense of the deep and meaningful relationship you had with your therapist. I was also struck by some similarities in our experiences. When you go through a loss like this, I know I have felt like noone would get it (at times), and I think you would. Wishing you peace..

  4. Thank you for this. I found out last night that our couples therapist died very suddenly last week. My wife is not as grief-stricken as I am, which is fine, but it adds to my sense of surprise at the depth of what I’m feeling. David occupied a very special place in my life. I was honest with him in a way I have been with no one else, and he was simultaneously accepting and encouraging for the best in me to stand up. He was perhaps the only “elder” I’ve ever had in my life, and I feel the loss of that tremendously.

    I’m also disappointed because for the last year I’ve been considering making a career change to be a therapist myself, partly because of the work we did with him. I want to help people heal and grow the way he helped me. And now I won’t get the chance to tell him that.

    That said, I am not devastated, or in despair, or feeling abandoned. I feel grief and sadness and loss, but thanks partly to our work together, I feel OK about that, and about mourning the way I need. And mostly I feel incredible gratitude to have had the chance to meet and work with him.

    Thanks again for the article, and to you and everyone out there who sees the best in people and helps them see it themselves.

    • Hello Ryan,
      Thanks for reading and writing in. I am very sorry to hear about your therapist’s sudden death. The way you have articulated your comment reflects the impact David has made on you; the seed he has planted and the legacy he has left. My very best wishes for you at this time and your continuing path. Karin

  5. Hi Karin, I found your website as I searched for help in coping with the loss of my therapist. I had been going to him 4 years and just recently was learning to feel the safety at a level I have never known. I was able to begin work on getting angry and feeling at a depth that was always something I was afraid of. I was raised to not recognize any feelings but happy. I am 72 years old and have a lot of grief behind me but with the help of this man I was willing to work at it as long as he would. He was an extremely young 78yrs old and loved learning anything new that could help his patients. He had cut down his practice to 2 days a week but the time and depth of caring that he gave was amazing. He was killed in a car crash 1 week ago yesterday and I am not sure I can get through this alone. Thank you for your site. Just reading and seeing your picture makes me feel that you are a very caring person and are possibly very similar to my therapist in your approach.

    • Hi Christine, thank you for reading and commenting. I am so sorry to hear about your therapist’s tragic death and your tragic loss. It sounds like the time spent working with him has been special, transformative and of help. I hope that in time that memory and its impact on you will offer you support, solace and guidance in coping with his loss. With best wishes. Karin

  6. Hello Karin,
    Thank you for this bereavement guide to we who never hoped to need it. I have had a therapist, mentor, friend who had guided me for years till one day he vanished from practice. His employer would not share any details, only that all his patients had become divided into two groups and reassigned to new doctors. It took me five months of searching for an answer of what was his reason for his untimely disappearance when I came upon his obituary. I was shocked in disbelief as he had never disclosed a heath concern of his own and his age was only 65 years. I learned from our time together beginnings have an end, and ends can be new beginnings. So I will continue my path with his memory brought to my next beginning. Never the less, I thank you for sharing this wisdom of understanding as his loss, my loss, has been unique and I had no idea if my feelings were natural or misplaced.

    • Thanks you for reading and commenting on my article, Nicholas. I am sorry to hear of the death of your confidante and the way in which communication (or lack of) was handled. This is often done in the name of the “therapeutic boundary”, and protection of the client’s feeling. Also it can be argued, that organisations / colleagues don’t know how the therapist who has died would have wanted such communication handled. Having been there on both sides I would argue for openness and transparency. The pain of not knowing and possibly doubting the integrity and honesty of the therapist who has “gone” or “disappeared” is too much of a risk. I am glad there is something valuable and powerful you can take forward from your time together. With best wishes. Karin

      • Hello Karin,
        Thank you for the prompt response. I am aware of the theory and practice of “therapeutic boundary”, and agree it has merit and room for improvement. My issue is the created feeling of abandonment that an organization can project in not offering any real type of closure for individuals under their care. It, in my opinion, leads to loss of trust and potentially fear of future use by individuals whom previously took refuge in their program. I know each person’s experiences are unique on to themselves, so I speak for myself, but I feel that in creating an obvious condition of doubt and/or trust loss, the effectiveness and opportunity of such programs and environments can be set back years or permanently removed. I have visited these emotions since making my own personnel decision to my particular matter, but share my experience so that my feedback may potential effect the outcome of another in a positive aspect. Thank you so much for your article and assurance that my feelings were in fact natural. I wish you and all you seek to help the best in life.

        • I paused my subscription for 2 months, then I sent an email to unpause. I never heard back from anyone. I think deep down I knew but just didnt want to accept it, changes in his website and then no website. I found another therapist. This one was chaneing platforms and I thought one last ditch effort to contact the previous one. I received an email back stating he had passed a little over a year ago, (“he went peacefully”) he passed 18 days after our last email. Thank you for this article. I am sad. Stunned. Never thanked him enough. And I deleted.that one email I should have kept. The therapist that changed platforms, well I messed that up also, and therapist are human too..it’s been a bad week.

          • Hello Al,
            I am sorry for your loss, the way you found out, and the challenges of therapists changing platforms. That all makes for a bad week. Thank you for sharing it here with others, who have similar experiences. I hope it may help in processing it. With best wishes. Karin

    • Dear Nicholas, I am very sorry for your loss and understand your desire for answers. I have been in a similar position and have been searching the internet for a death announcement and location of a grave. I wonder if any of my therapists other patients are doing the same. I think it’s kinder to openly discuss these issues regarding death and dying, then leave someone to discover and process this on their own. Peace x

      • Anon,
        I have done the same. No obituary, no death announcement. I looked for a long time thinking if he had passed I would find something, but nothing. I thought maybe he retired. Then I found the date of his passing on FB. I added my own memorial on find a grave. His bio is still on most of the platforms he used in the past with his educational history. I went to the beach today and threw flowers in the bay even though he was thousands of miles away from me I have a suspicion he was cremated or had a green burial at sea. He was a surfer and photographer.

  7. Karin,
    My therapist is still alive but he is in his 70s. I can’t help but worry and feel sad about when he passes away. I am scared and sad for that day.

    • Hello Cindy, thanks for your comment. I think it would be worth discussing your feelings about losing him and death / mortality in general with your therapist. This could be a really important part of the therapy. Best wishes. Karin

  8. My teenage years therapist just died. Aftet therapy he became a friend and we sometimes worked together as I became a psychologist as well. Now he died all of a sudden I feel like I lost my father again. I feel like noone will understand me again like he did. I am devastaded.

    • Dear Konstantina, I am sorry for your loss. There is probably not much I or anyone can say at this stage to make it better. The initial stage of such a pain cannot be penetrated or “made better” by well meant words or reasoning. You have got to get through that somehow. But what a special connection you have shared, and probably enriched each other. In time, I worked through it by remembering what my therapist used to say, or I imagined what he might have said. A bit like what we call “the internal supervisor”. We would laugh, when I said I carried him (my therapist) on my shoulder. Even (or should I say – especially) in grief the relationship became stronger, and I have grown through it. It has certainly enriched me as a person and the work I am doing. I trust you will find your own unique way of working it through. You, like we all, will have your internal wisdom to guide you through the pain and beyond. My best wishes for you. Karin

  9. Excellent article. It means a great support to me.My therapist passed away a month ago. Thank you

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