I have a final session scheduled with someone I’ve seen for 6 months. What should happen in the session to make the ending go well for the client?
This blog focuses on the tasks of termination. If you haven’t read the previous blog on Psychotherapy Termination, you’ll find that helpful before you focus on the logistics.
The main goal of termination is to create an ending that is less traumatic than the client’s prior experiences of separation and loss and that honors the client’s way of managing loss. The tasks of ending treatment are the same regardless of whether the ending is planned or unplanned and whether it is initiated by you or by the client. I will discuss one way to organize the ending into three tasks: reviewing the work you have done together, discussing future circumstances when therapy could be helpful, and sharing the experience of saying goodbye. It can be helpful to share these tasks with the client in preparation for a final session, since most clients have little experience of ending a relationship with thought and acknowledgement of the emotions surrounding the loss.
The first task is to review the therapy, with you and the client sharing your thoughts about what you have worked on together and the changes that have occurred. When you share your perspective, it is especially meaningful to the client to hear your memories about the early sessions. An example is “When we began working together, you were really depressed and you had a hard time imagining how you could ever feel better. Now you seem to be enjoying your job and time with your kids and you have ways to cope with sad feelings when they come up.” If there are issues that are still problematic or have not been a focus of your work with the client, you can acknowledge those with a statement about how the client might address them on her/his own.
Second, the end of therapy is a time to provide support and education regarding returning to treatment in the future. People often wait until symptoms are debilitating or until their lives are seriously impaired before seeking help, and a reminder about the steps that led up to the client’s presenting symptoms and condition may help her/him seek treatment more quickly. Also, you can talk with the client about life transitions or developmental stages that may present a risk or vulnerability. For example, a woman who was sexually abused at age 8 is likely to experience increased anxiety and reminders of her trauma if she has daughter who reaches the age of 8. An adolescent who loses a parent will be vulnerable to episodes of depression or other grief-related symptoms when losses and transitions occur throughout adolescence and adulthood. You can provide encouragement for future treatment by saying “If you find your symptoms returning again, I hope you’ll seek help again. People often find it helpful to see a therapist when times are stressful or when there are life changes that may bring up some of the issues we’ve worked on here.”
The last task is to share the experience of saying goodbye. Many clients are avoidant of emotions related to loss, and the depth and extent of this part of your conversation about ending may be limited. However, at minimum you can make a statement like “I want you to know that I have enjoyed getting to know you and participating in the progress you have made. I feel some sadness in saying goodbye, and I wish you well.” This direct expression of your feelings provides the client with a different experience of ending, even if s/he doesn’t share her/his feelings.
I hope you find this structure helpful in organizing your final session. Please email me with comments, questions or suggestions for future blog topics.