A letter to my dead therapist was one way of coping with his sudden death, when there was no chance to say good bye, no place to go to grief, no-one to talk to. The death of a therapist can affect us in many ways and closure is important.
If you are in a similar situation, this letter to my dead therapist might give you some ideas of what might help you in finding some closure and peace.
1. How it happened.
When I received the email it had your name in the subject heading and had been sent by a person I did not know. I instinctively knew…
About four months before then we had (what later turned out to be) our last session. I had just started my chemotherapy for breast cancer and not seen you for three weeks. Your appearance had changed. You looked much younger, and I told you so. But there was something in your face. And for the first time in all these years I dared to ask about you: ‘Are you OK?’ And for the first time you told me about yourself: ‘No, I am not.’
To me, this felt like a very special moment of trust, but also an indication of a change occurring – somewhere – in you. We both left it at that.
We were due to meet again after your pre-booked break. I said, I felt that that might not be so (not because of me, but because of you). You said, you had no reason to think you would not be there. I left the room saying “Look after yourself.” Another first. I wanted you to know I cared and that I was concerned.
Two weeks later I received an email from you telling me that due to health reasons of your own, you could no longer see clients for the time being. You would provide updates when they became available, and would I like to wait or would I like you to recommend another therapist for the interim or long-term?
The idea of not seeing you, when I was facing the biggest challenge in my own life, not knowing what was happening to you and not knowing what would happen in the future, was shocking and painful.
My inner child was protesting: ‘No, I do not want another therapist – I want you.’ How could I possibly start all over again?
It would take years for someone else to ‘get me’ the way you did. And anyway, no one would understand me and be with me the way you had.
But the adult in me knew I needed a back-up plan.
2. I doubted and trusted you.
The weeks and months with no news from you eventually re-triggered old wounds of abandonment in me. The child (and sometimes the adult, too) imagined that you had started work again but did not want to see me, that I was too much. I imagined finding my own new therapist. I did not need your recommendation! I was angry. I was afraid, very afraid.
3 three months after our last meeting, I got in touch with the therapist you recommended. Unknown to me, this was a few weeks before your death. The person was exactly who I needed then. So I had some support in place, when I opened the email telling me of your death.
I had finally summoned the courage to send you an email, breaching my self-imposed boundary of no contact outside of sessions. I wanted you to know I was holding you in my thoughts and sending you positive energy. I wanted you to know, you mattered and that I was doing well.
And to be truthful, the angry part in me also wanted you to know that I was doing well without you.
But I know you would have seen through that. You knew me well.
As it turned out, by the time I sent the email you had already been dead for three days.
I am glad that throughout I managed to hold on to the trust in you. That was stronger than the doubt.
3. What you meant to me – a solid container.
When I first started training as a psychotherapist, a course tutor remarked that our first therapist might become the most influential person in our lives. And you turned out to be that for me. You became parent, teacher, sibling and so much more.
We had just started to make a breakthrough regarding my anger. I even started to be angry with you, and I would tell you so. You encouraged all that, even the swearing.
Why being angry with your therapist can be helpful
You became a solid container, trusted friend, spiritual guide and mentor. I respected you for the respect you showed me. I admired your integrity and authenticity, your ability to empathise and believe in me. With time I started to believe in myself.
Eventually we (your clients) were told the cause of your death – cancer. I had been wondering, from the day I received your email about needing to take time off.
Your death of cancer felt worse than my own cancer diagnosis. And I am not flippant about it. And I am the one to outlive you. I – who had been talking about dying and death and much more… The irony of it! You could not make it up.
Knowing the cause of your death helped me deal a lot better with the enormity of losing you. At least one unknown had been removed and I could focus on the loss. Even though, still now, from time to time, I experience moments of utter disbelief and deep pain that you are gone. I am grateful a process was in place for your clients to be told of your death and to be given an offer of support should we need it.
I dread to think what it could have been like, had we not been told about your death: more doubting you, more fear of abandonment?
But I think I would have found out, somehow, eventually.
4. Saying good bye.
We, you and I, we did not have an ending together. Your colleagues had an event in your memory, which excluded clients. Part of me thinks this was probably appropriate. The child, however, felt angry and excluded – therapists versus clients.
I do not know what could or should have been offered for clients, indeed, whether it would have been anyone’s responsibility to do so. Or whether other clients would have even wanted such an arrangement.
When you can no longer explain, ask why or say good bye – about endings
But I had an ending of sorts by returning to the room we had worked in last. I just asked, and my wish was granted – 10 minutes. I am grateful for that. I took a photograph of your chair (which came out distorted), of both our chairs, the clock, the tissue box, the view from the window and the view from the waiting room to the steps you would always climb up ahead of me – my eyes focusing on the hem of your trousers and the heels of your shoes.
You would always, without fail, turn around at the bottom of the stairs to check I was there and then smile at me. That’s when our 50 minutes started – not in the room, but at the bottom of the stairs.
When I re-entered the room to take the photographs, it felt empty. I felt empty. You had gone.
To start with, I had the photos on my wall. Over time, I no longer needed to look at them. Then came the day when I was ready to take them down. I still have them, somewhere.
You introduced me to the concept of gratitude for our life experiences. Nothing, you said, is a waste.
Everything is a gift. Everything has meaning – including pain.
It took me a long time to understand what you meant. You have taught me so much.
Why gratitude helps us find inner peace
5. Making sense of your death.
Now you are my dead therapist but you remain alive in me. You had been a gift. Even your death, dare I say, holds in it gifts of guidance. That is the best way I can make sense of your death, for now. Your death has made me re-evaluate my own life and mortality.
I realised just how little prepared I am for my own death, and how that is standing in my way of living, whatever time I have left, to the fullest.
Your death has also made me re-evaluate my own client work, especially boundaries and self- disclosure when faced with ill health and death.
I dealt with your death the best I could, the way I had learnt from being with you. I had internalised your voice:
“Karin, observe, feel, name, accept – trust the process.”
I feel privileged to have met you. You believed in me and my pain. You helped me grow and change. I trusted you, like no-one else. And the trust continues to contain my grief and makes me feel safe.
The experience of losing you and grieving for you is intense and to start with felt unbearable. Some people who have not had therapy or who have a different experience with their own therapist, found it difficult to understand the intensity of my emotional response to your death.
Indeed, some have questioned whether this is a sign of an unhealthy dependence on you, and whether the therapeutic boundaries should not have prevented this level of involvement. Others know exactly where I am coming from.
6. Thank you.
In the very early days of our work, you once remarked that you are comfortable with your truth. Then, I had not understood what you meant. You might as well have talked a different language. And you know what, it had sounded a bit arrogant and pompous – like pain is a gift! Yes, right!
But with time I learnt to understand what you had meant, and I started to feel it myself.
I thank you for that – for offering me a unique relationship, which allowed me to explore, make friends with and embrace my own truth.
First published in 2013 by BACP Private Practice, Winter 2013.
I am grateful for feedback. You can leave yours in the comment box belox.
Thanks to you, my website is among the Top 10 UK Psychotherapy Blogs
Your words resonated with me because I too asked for the first time, how are you? And we too had talked about illness & death, whilst they were (unknown to me) facing their own battle. I think it’s a beautiful idea of revisiting the place we were once together. I’m not sure if it’s possible, but with your descriptions I certainly visualised it. I’m deeply sorry for your loss. And I just wanted to thank you for your kindness and compassionate writing.
Hello, thank you for reading this and another article, sharing your own experience and kind words. I am sorry to hear your therapist has died and the grief you are feeling. I think it is good you are not ignoring but facing your feelings and the pain. With very best wishes. Karin
My therapist of 7 years passed suddenly yesterday. I was informed by a family friend this morning and have been left in shock and in a deep sadness. I was seeing her almost every week up until I was in university and graduated (our sessions turned into fortnightly to once a month). She influenced my life greatly as without her I would not had made it through my teen years in high school and would not have ever thought to have graduated university if it wasn’t for her support and impact. After reading your post and seeing the amount of comments from others who have experienced the same situation I was able to feel a little bit relaxed however, due to the severity of her loss I am afraid of how I am going to cope without her. We only just started working on my inner child and letting go of my trauma however, I don’t think I can open up to another therapist and feel the same way she made me feel. I never got to say goodbye nor did I ever get to thank her for saving me. I had always hoped I would be able to get the chance to leave therapy when I was ready and to thank her for helping me. Knowing now that she won’t be here to see me independent and able breaks me because she truely was like a mother to me. I guess you could say I was dependent but starting therapy at 15 and having issues at home created such a deep bond between my therapist and I as in that moment she was truely the only one that was able to provide that care for me during that time. My heart feels heavy and I feel like I’ve lost one of the only people in this world that really knew me and was proud of me.
Dear Emilia, I am sorry to hear your therapist has died, suddenly without the opportunity of saying good bye. I am glad you found that my article and the contributions of others with a shared experience provide you with some support. Your own contribution feels like an important part in your grief process and no doubt it will provide comfort to others. Also no doubt your therapist will remain present in your mind and heart for years to come. With best wishes. Karin
Thank you Karin. I hope you too, have been able to heal from your experience.
Thank you, Emilia. The grief has changed. The loss remains. Very best. Karin
My therapist passed away in 2018. I was blindsided. Here is her YOUTUBE tribute
Dear Randi, thank you for sharing this video. It is deeply moving, on so many levels… Karin
Your post is more helpful than you could ever know. I just lost my therapist of technically 17 years. I began seeing her during my parents divorce when I was 15. She was instrumental in me processing and getting through that life-altering change, as well as everything else that came with being a teenage girl. After college I began seeing her again when going through a difficult breakup and again, she gave me the motivation and encouragement I needed to be able to get through that and move on. I’ve felt lost and without a clear sense of direction and I felt we were making great strides in where I was going. She found out three weeks ago she had cancer, but they caught it early and we would resume sessions once she felt better come October. I found out through a family friend she had declined rapidly and passed on Friday night. No one has made a greater impact on my life than Provy did. I will forever be grateful for her guidance, support and unwavering belief in me. I know she is in a better place but I can’t image not having her to help me through this, and having regret that I didn’t learn more about her life. She is always the person I want to turn to and it’s going to be so hard to come to terms with the fact that she is no longer there.
Thanks for reading and sharing your own experience. I am sorry to hear about the sudden death of your trusted therapist, the circumstances and that there was no way of saying good-bye. In a way, reading your lines it feels like you are saying a good-bye, saying what she stood for and the part she has played in your life. The grief now is painful, but it will not diminish what she meant. People who have positively influenced and shaped us, stay with us, in the way we navigate life after they have gone from our life. It’s special that you have been able to experience this bond. Go well. With very best wishes. Karin
I just lost my therapist of twenty two years-she died of pancreatic cancer. I hadn’t seen her for a session due to the pandemic but I did talk to her on the phone and she told me details about her cancer but I thought I would have time to see her again or at least talk to her again. She went so quickly. I found out that she died by reading the obituaries in the local newspaper. I am devastated and still in shock. Thanks for sharing your experience Karin. Wondering how you are doing now, does one ever get over it or is one ever able to move on in life? Who does one go to when the person you always went to is no longer alive?
Dear Mary, thanks for reading my article and writing in. I am sorry to hear about your loss. It’s interesting when we have our ‘last moments’ (conversations, meetings, a wave or smile) not knowing it might be the last. After 22 years you will have had quite a bond I assume. Pancreatic cancer (like many others, or even stages of what may be regarded as cancers with ‘better outcomes’) can be extremely fast, even for the patient. Perhaps your therapist did not know that this was the last session. Who knows. Does one get over it, or move on – you ask? I think one can learn to live with it. The knowledge that our lives were touched by good people, and the gratitude for that experience and the fruits that may have come of that. In time, it’s easier (for me) to look at it like that. You also ask – who does one go to? I think this is very individual. Some may not want to go to anyone else. Others may need continuing support, and then the loss will need to be built into the therapy (ie talked about and processed). That was very important to me, to talk about it. And I was fortunate enough to be speaking with someone who had known my therapist. That helped – me. You will know when you are ready and you will know who will be the right person. It might take some time – or not. I wish you well. Be gentle with yourself and the grief you are going through. Karin
Hi, my therapist of 10 years got brain cancer. Last time I saw her was October 7, 2019. I sent her some flowers, but a card or letter weekly. We talked via email some. Then set up a one hour phone conversation in January 2020 where we talked for an hour and she told me the devastating news. She died December 2nd and just had her funeral two days ago. I was blessed to be able to watch it on live stream. I too am a psychologist. The loss of her in my life has been enormous. I too, have been blessed to have had her for 10 years. Yes, God blessed me with an angel to help me thru some tough times. I will keep her in my heart and I talk to her daily in heaven. I will always love her as she was my mother, sister, and best friend at times. She will always be a part of my family in my mind. I will never forget her. I, like you, am going to write her a letter to help with my grief. I never got a final session to give her a hug. I never got closure with her. Rest in Paradise Dr. Dean. I will always love you and can’t ever repay you for the help and support you always shown me thru the years. Having to be on the outside and not really be able to attend the funeral has been terrible. But I can talk to her now and I believe she hears me!! Thanks for letting me share. Karen
Dear Karen, thank you for sharing your own experience. Words do not seem enough to acknowledge what you may feel. It feels your therapist has helped to equip you well to go through this next phase of your life and work with her – together. Sending you my very best of wishes. Karin
Hi Karin, yes I will keep my therapist in my heart and will never forget all that I learned from her. Thank you for your comforting comments. I have faith that she would want me to continue to grown and be the best I can be..!! I will never forget her and hope she’s the first person I see in heaven!!
Thanks for sharing. This really resonates with me.
“You became a solid container, trusted friend, spiritual guide and mentor. I respected you for the respect you showed me. I admired your integrity and authenticity, your ability to empathise and believe in me. With time I started to believe in myself… I feel privileged to have met you. You believed in my and my pain. You helped me grow and change. I trusted you, like no-one else. And the trust continues to contain my grief and makes me feel safe….I thank you for that – for offering me a unique relationship, which allowed me to explore, make friends with and embrace my own truth.”
Hello Kim, thanks for reading and commenting. Best wishes. Karin