As a psychotherapist in private practice for over 30 years, I have had the pleasure and privilege of knowing people intimately. What I do gives me purpose and self-satisfaction. I often find myself wishing I could help someone more or wanting to understand something deeper. I take time during the week to jot down notes of where to go next session or questions I would like to explore further. I think about everyone I see and care about each and everyone a great deal.
When my Father was recently diagnosed with a terminal illness, I had the opportunity to be present often at his home with Hospice care. Without hesitation, I canceled appointments and took several long trips to travel to his home several states away. I realized during these trips that I was in essence abandoning my patients. The profound influence that a parent has on our lives is not only textbook literature, but true. The life lesson I learned while helping my father live comfortably during his last days is invaluable to me as a person and a therapist. Issues of loss are certainly a common topic in psychotherapy, whether it is a split in a relationship, stories of abandonment, or a history of a death that played a significant role in someone’s life. When I came back to work after his death, I was very aware that I needed to maintain the boundaries between therapist and client. After all, the therapy sessions were for my client’s benefit, not mine. I was anxious that my concentration would not be 100%. Little in graduate school or postgraduate training prepares us for how to deal with the loss of our own parent. Our spirituality and beliefs, as well as our way to grieve and comfort ourselves, come into play when working closely with others.
What I did find was that my grief and loss made me more acutely aware of my client’s feelings. I was better able to hear their emptiness and feel their stories of wishing they were more connected to people in their lives. I could pull examples from my life and use them, but I continued to ponder if that was my own way of healing. In one session in which someone was angry with me for my cancellations, we spoke about abandonment and how my absences felt similar to difficult parts of her life. Weeks later, we spoke about the bittersweet relationship she had with her mother, and her imagined thoughts on how I would have better handled things. The decision to share some of my feelings or stories are based on the benefit of the individual client. I let her know that I understood her despair, and I told her a story about my own trajectory in my relationship with my parent. At that moment, she began to cry. This was a turning point in therapy, as she felt the support that was previously non-existent in her life. A therapeutic relationship can indeed be healing. Being a good therapist means dealing with our own “stuff” and not bringing it into session. What makes for good therapy is a working knowledge of theory, good listening skills, practice, empathy and clear communication. What makes for great therapy is being able to use objectivity in building rapport, while addressing difficult issues with gentle confrontation. A good working relationship between therapist and patient is essential to the process of therapy.
In my work at MPG with both individuals and couples, my hope is to help people learn better ways of communication. Often I may discuss troublesome behaviors I notice that may be impacting their lives. With growth, most people report happier feelings and more intimacy. Losing my Father has taught me, once again, the importance of relationships in our lives.