How Do You Say Goodbye to Your Therapist?

What happens when your longtime therapist and confidante retires, ending the relationship? I’m about to find out.

Illustration by Jon Reinfurt

As soon as Adelaide’s face appeared on my computer screen, I felt the upswell of an urge to cry. I had been seeing Adelaide, on and off, over the past 15 years, so it’s not like I had never cried with her—she was my therapist, after all. But this time was different, because Adelaide was the reason I was crying. At 81, she was retiring. That night was our final session together.

I began therapy with Adelaide in 2007 because I was in crisis. Two weeks before I started seeing her, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. At the time of diagnosis, I was 13 weeks pregnant and had to decide if I was going to have an abortion and lose the last child the doctor told me I would be able to have or go through an adjusted chemotherapy protocol while pregnant that could possibly increase my risk of dying. My husband and I had a 20-month-old toddler at home, and I was gripped with panic at the thought of leaving her to grow up without me. That fear was not something abstract: My own mother had died of cancer when I was just five years old.

In other words, I was a prime candidate for therapy.

I worked with Adelaide until my baby was born, happy and healthy, and throughout the rest of my cancer treatment. And then I kept going. Over the next 14 years, I went in and out of therapy with Adelaide, taking breaks, some for several months, one as long as a few years. I always found myself back in her therapy room, not because bad things were happening in my life—although they sometimes were—but because of the amazing things that were happening in that room. There was always so much to learn from Adelaide, so much to learn about myself.

In the process, Adelaide became a very important person in my life. I know relationships with therapists are not personal, but, oh, they are so very personal. Inside the temporal and physical limits of my sessions in her therapy room, I made Adelaide the guardian of some of my most intimate thoughts and feelings—my most honest admissions. Hers was the advice and guidance I most cherished, and I was excited to tell her about my own breakthroughs and accomplishments.

I also understand that the therapist-client relationship is not a real-life one, and they are relationships that are inherently one-sided. For the person on the couch side of it, though, it can sure feel like a real relationship—a friendship, even.

Nothing, though, is odder about this type of relationship than its ending. No one argued. No one died. No one grew out of the other person. I can’t think of another close relationship that comes to an end because one of the people in it is retiring.

As our last session opened, I felt a mix of gratitude, disbelief, and sadness. Over all those years together, Adelaide helped me heal, grow closer to my own mother, and get to know myself better. And then there was this: She was part of a chain of events and coincidences related to my search for answers surrounding my mother’s death that was so improbable I can only describe it as a miracle. So how do you ever thank someone for that? And how do you say goodbye?

Adelaide was not merely my longtime therapist; she was the only one I’ve ever had. My father never put me in therapy as a child—except for one session—despite the fact that my mother died when I was so young. I remember him telling me that I would adjust to the loss and would be fine. I made being fine my life’s work.

That one time he took me, my sister, and my brother to see a therapist, I was six years old, and he was about to get remarried. The therapist’s space was in a garden-level office on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I sat on a long black couch and remember watching people’s feet walk by the window.

The next time I went to therapy, I was 34. I sat on a puffy chair near a window in Cambridge with views across the Charles onto Boston, facing a therapist in a turtleneck sweater and corduroy pants. I talked nonstop for 45 minutes about how excruciating it was to be away from my four-month-old baby during the day while I was working and about my professional angst, having just moved back to Massachusetts after living abroad as a freelance foreign correspondent. I told her how disorienting I found it to live in a place where there were 23 kinds of hummus on the supermarket shelf after having lived for eight years in Central and South America, where I’d been making my own hummus with dried chickpeas.

I thought I had laid out plenty for us to explore in subsequent sessions. But in the last few minutes, after she asked about my family and I told her that my mother had died when I was five, I saw a change register on her face, and I knew I’d lost her. I suspected that revealing this about myself was the psychological equivalent of throwing a rock of crack into the lap of an addict, and I could feel myself and my real troubles disappearing in the haze of her latest Freudian fix. She told me that she thought my mother’s death had a lot to do with how I was feeling and we could talk more at our next session.

I put on my coat. Had she even been listening to me? This was why I had never wanted to get into therapy. And I didn’t, until I didn’t have a choice: About a year and a half later, I walked into Adelaide’s cozy office overlooking Mass Ave. in Cambridge with a tumor in my breast and a baby in my belly. Early in the session, I told her that my mother had died.

“Do we have to make this all about her?” I said.

“We can make it about whatever you want it to be about,” she replied.

Somehow, though, over the next several months, I did talk to her about my mother. I told her the hospital didn’t allow children to visit, and so my siblings and I never got to say goodbye to our mother before she died—or after. My father and grandmother said we were too young to go to her funeral.

I told her I had spent a lifetime trying not to forget a mother I could barely remember. I explained that my father didn’t really talk much about her unless asked, and his answers were rarely long and never deep. I confessed that I had long wished my mother had left me a note or some final, dying words that I could hold onto in her absence. That as a child, I dreamt of receiving a message from beyond or finding a secret letter. That in my twenties, I took ayahuasca in the depths of the Amazon, hoping to see her appear before me out of the darkness. I saw—and spoke to—someone else who I loved dearly who had died. It was healing, but it wasn’t her.

After a couple of months of therapy with Adelaide, I drove to Connecticut and sat before my father, bald from chemo treatment and pregnant, for a long conversation about my mother’s death. I asked him if she’d said she was sad to leave us, if she’d said she would miss us.

“Of course she thought that,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “But did she say it? I just want to hear it.”

“No, Catherine,” he told me, “there were no final words, no dying instructions, no message because we never talked about the fact that she was dying.”

He explained that once doctors removed the mass in her abdomen, he, my maternal grandmother, and the doctor agreed not to tell her it was cancerous and that she had only six months left to live. At the very end, when it was obvious she was dying, she and my father still didn’t discuss it, he said. They would just go back and forth, saying, “I love you.” I went home without the answer I so desperately wanted to hear.

One of the most important things Adelaide taught me during our sessions was that the answers to our questions aren’t nearly as important as the questions themselves. The exploration of my mother’s memory and the questions that I began asking with Adelaide allowed me to mourn my mother’s death in a way I had never had the chance to do as a child. Through that process, I grew closer to my mother’s memory and closer to myself.

Another important—and maddening—thing Adelaide taught me was that trying to make things happen in your life doesn’t work because doing so creates too much resistance. Getting what you want in life, she told me, is more about doing “the work” on yourself and creating the space to allow things to unfold naturally. It was all about energy, she said.

Adelaide is a seeker. Her therapy sessions never felt clinical as she attended not just to the mind but also the soul. She ushered me onto my own spiritual journey, introducing me to the Enneagram, an ancient system of psychology and personality typing, and encouraging me to study Qi Gong. In the years after I started seeing her, I found a yoga practice to which I still remain dedicated today, completed a 10-day silent meditation, and worked extensively with ayahuasca and other plant medicines with a healer from the Amazon. These were all experiences that have had profound impacts on my life and personal growth.

It may all sound pretty far “out there,” but ever since its earliest days, the process of self-discovery through psychotherapy has been associated with the metaphysical. The famed Freud protégé and rival Carl Jung spoke of the universal unconscious—the connection between one’s mind and all humankind—and of synchronicities or coincidences that happen, sometimes in therapy, that can neither be explained probabilistically nor written off as completely random occurrences. When these synchronicities happen, they feel otherworldly, like miracles, or something divine. I know this because it happened to me.

I took my longest break from therapy in 2013, when I moved with my family to Peru. Exactly four years later, after my marriage ended, I returned to Adelaide via Skype to mourn the loss of my original life plan and figure out what I wanted for myself moving forward. Adelaide encouraged me to enroll in the Landmark Forum, a three-day, large-group personal development course she thought would complement the work we were doing. (The course is often pilloried as being cultish, but everyone I knew who had taken it had praise for it.)

I decided to take the course on my next Boston and Connecticut trip to visit friends and family. A couple of months before traveling, I went online and opened the Boston schedule, only to find that there wasn’t a course on the only weekend I was available. Before declaring defeat, I found a course for that weekend being offered in New York. I decided to add New York to my travel plans.

I befriended someone during the first 13-hour day after sitting with him at every session. The next morning, we sat together again, and he promised to save me a seat for the afternoon session. But when I returned to the room, where 150 chairs were set up for participants, I found that someone had dumped her purse on the seat he was supposed to be saving for me. He shrugged an apology, saying that she seemed cool and suggesting I sit on the other side of her.

At one point during the session, the woman and I started chatting. She mentioned she spoke Spanish and said she presumed I did, too, because I had said I lived in Peru when I spoke during an exercise the day before. I asked her where she learned Spanish, and she told me she had been a college professor of Spanish literature.

“My mother was a Spanish professor, too,” I said. And then, after a long pause, I added with some pride, “She was the first woman to get her Ph.D. in Spanish Literature from the City University of New York.”

“What was her name?” she asked.

“Willa Sack Elton,” I replied.

She turned in her chair, grabbed my shoulders, and pulled me to face her. “I knew your mother,” she said. “I was in a Ph.D. program with her. I was heartbroken when she died.”

I crumpled into her arms, sobbing, and she held me tight. It was all too much to fathom: My mother died in 1976 at age 33. There simply were not many people in the world who knew her and were still around. I was supposed to take the personal development course in Boston, not New York. There are 8 million people who live in New York City. There were 150 people in that room. Of all those chairs, she had sat in mine.

If that wasn’t improbable enough, it only got more uncanny. At the next break, we stood in the sunshine on 33rd Street, and she asked me how I wound up in the course. I told her my therapist from Boston suggested I take it and that she had done a number of the Landmark courses.

“Who is your therapist?” she asked.

“Adelaide Smith,” I said.

“Oh,” she shot out. “Adelaide is a friend of mine!”

I felt like I was falling, caught in a cosmic vortex, and had to steady myself in the face of the enormity of it all. My therapist, who helped me belatedly mourn my mother’s death, was friends with my mother’s friend.

The woman hooked her arm in mine and steered me to a Chinese restaurant across the street for dinner, telling me on the way she wanted me to talk to another friend of hers from the Ph.D. program who had also been friends with my mother. At the table, she Facetimed her friend, explained the incredible coincidence, and passed her phone to me. One of the first things I told this other friend—and I don’t entirely know why—was that it pained me beyond words to think that my mother’s illness was hidden from her and that she and my father never talked about her death. “Somehow,” I said, “I feel like she died an unacknowledged death.”

“What do you mean?” the woman on Facetime asked. “Your mother knew she was dying. We talked about it. She told us how sad she was to leave you and your siblings and how much she would miss you.”

It was incredible. Those were the very words I’d told Adelaide that I needed to hear.

It’s hard to explain how that encounter affected me other than to say that it shifted tectonic plates deep inside my being and created new space for other things to occur. It also strengthened my faith in what Adelaide had taught me: to not try so hard to make things happen and instead work on myself and allow them to happen.

After the course in New York, I applied that same lesson to building the life I wanted. Just as Adelaide had told me that my therapy could be about whatever I wanted it to be, she’d also taught me that I could make my life about whatever I wanted it to be about. And she told me that I would never be satisfied with any amount of professional success if I couldn’t be satisfied with what I’d already accomplished.

So I put my head down and worked hard, focusing on the joy of being a journalist and not so much on where it was all going. In late 2018, I got the job I most wanted, the only one for which I said I would return to Boston. A few months later, I moved back here with my children and built a life for us. We are all thriving.

During that final session with Adelaide, we talked about where I was in my life when I first walked into her office and where I am today. That only made the session more poignant because I don’t believe I would have all that I do if it weren’t for her. We also talked about some of the other inexplicable connections and coincidences between us that were too hard to explain away probabilistically—yes, there were others. “I’m glad the universe invited me into your journey,” she said. “We had a great ride together, and it won’t stop just because we aren’t face to face.” And I have to say, I believe her.

I know the process of self-discovery never ends. There is always more evolving to do. Still, a therapist friend of mine said you know when you are done with a particular therapeutic process when you can hear your therapist’s voice in your head. I often hear Adelaide’s voice in my head, can guess what she would say and know how to ask myself many of the questions she tended to ask me.

Adelaide also taught me how to sit in my pain instead of avoiding it. With her, I learned how to mourn my losses. Now, I can use what Adelaide taught me to mourn losing her.

As those last 50 minutes drew to a close and it was time to say goodbye, I told Adelaide, through tears, that I didn’t know how to thank her enough for everything she had done for me. “You thank me by having done the work, by acknowledging me as you have tonight, and then by living your life in a powerful way,” she said. “That’s the thanks.”

I nodded in agreement. It is one more piece of advice from her I intend to take to heart.

First published in the print edition of the December 2022 issue, with the headline “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.”