The COVID-19 pandemic, for all of its heartache and inconvenience, has encouraged many of us to extend more grace. Friends may not respond to texts right away, grieving coworkers may not be upbeat, and our families might be dealing with anxieties and difficulties they can’t express. Part of adjusting has involved accessing compassion for ourselves and others. But one person you might overlook, especially if you use them as a coping strategy, is your mental health professional. So what happens when your therapist’s challenges spill over into your sessions? What do you do if they ghost you, take a sudden leave of absence, or even pass away?
“Your therapist is human,” Emily Jamea, Ph.D., LMFT, tells SELF, adding that it’s natural to gloss over this unavoidable truth. Why? If your therapist never discloses anything about their personal life, it’s easy to forget that they have bad days, experience grief, get bad cramps, or flip people off in traffic (just like you). Yes, intellectually you know that your therapist is a person, but if thinking about them buying ice cream at your local convenience store on a Friday night seems weird, you’ve probably made them less human in your mind. “Practicing compassion for your therapist can help soften the sting of loss,” Dr. Jamea explains.
Even so, the idea that your therapist will disappear without warning isn’t overwhelmingly common. For instance, if your therapist moves away or has to go on leave, they’ll probably allocate time to help you process any feelings that arise, Robert Allan, Ph.D., LMFT, assistant professor of couple and family therapy at the University of Colorado, Denver, tells SELF. Still, bad things happen occasionally and it’s okay to prepare, so we asked therapists things you can do to manage any therapy grief—before, during, and after your professional’s departure.
1. If you’re nervous about sudden departures, bring it up to your therapist.
You might feel silly bringing this up, but with uncertainty, sickness, and death floating around, it’s not surprising to think about how you’d manage without therapy. “I would encourage any client who has a concern…to trust that there’s a space for that conversation in the therapeutic relationship,” Dr. Jamea explains. “Therapists are trained to process that kind of thing.” This advice—to talk to your therapist about therapy—is useful across the board. “If you tell us, ‘This is what I’m worried about,’ your therapist [should] acknowledge your worry and try to help you have the full experience that you’re paying for,” Morton Rosenbaum, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai Hospital, previously told SELF. So if you’re nervous that one day you’ll wake up and your therapist won’t be there, talk to them about it.
2. Come up with a coping plan.
It’s not irrational to think through how you’ll deal if your therapist departs suddenly. Maybe you find comfort in creating elaborate plans. There’s no harm in this, Dr. Jamea says. Making a plan can help you feel more prepared for the unexpected. But don’t think you have to come up with this plan alone, Dr. Jamea says. You and your therapist might talk about the potential transition if for whatever reason they suddenly couldn’t see you anymore, discuss how you’d find another therapist, or revisit coping strategies that you’ve used in the past to deal with loss, Dr. Allan explains.
Talking about ending therapy with your therapist isn’t as weird as it sounds. “[Most] therapists don’t like to hang on to clients forever,” Dr. Jamea says. “Most people like to see our clients fly away from the nest and put coping skills into practice. So it can be a really good learning opportunity and a therapeutic opportunity to be stronger. And most of us are in therapy to feel stronger.”
3. If your therapy sessions end abruptly, permit yourself to grieve.
“Let’s say your therapist transfers, moves suddenly, or is out for a long time,” Dr. Jamea explains. “When those sorts of things happen suddenly, it can be really hard.” But the unorthodox relationship can make it hard to figure out what you’re allowed to feel. “It’s okay to say, ‘I’ve lost someone who offered me comfort and care and support, even though I didn’t offer that in return,’” Dr. Allan says. In short: It’s okay to be sad.