Help! My Therapist Suddenly Retired and I Feel Abandoned

Dear GoodTherapy.org,
I have had the same therapist for more than six years. She recently left the country, with no warning to her clients, to take a parent to their home country to die. The visit was extended due to circumstances beyond her control, yet I was told twice I could expect an appointment upon her return. When she did return, I was informed she was no longer seeing clients—and then I received a letter a couple of weeks later to inform me that she was retiring from clinical practice. I have appealed to her for one last visit for closure and she has refused. I am having to see another therapist to work through the anger associated with this issue and don't remember ever feeling so hurt and confused. Isn't this abandonment and contrary to ethical practices? Is there any recourse I can take to try to resolve this with her, or is this just totally my problem now? —Needing Closure
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Dear Needing Closure,

I am so very sorry that this is how the relationship with your therapist has ended. You mention feeling angry, hurt, confused, and even abandoned. Given the scenario you presented, I can certainly understand why you would feel these things.

There is a phase of therapy called termination that happens as treatment is winding down. Termination serves as an opportunity to reflect on the work that has been done and the progress, growth, and change that has resulted. It is also a time for therapists and people in therapy to say goodbye to one another and process the end of the therapeutic relationship. The absence of this phase of treatment can absolutely leave you feeling a need for closure—especially because it was your therapist’s decision to end treatment so abruptly, not yours.

Despite your request for a final session, it sounds like you are not going to be able to engage in the termination process with your therapist. Letter writing can be a helpful tool when you have a lot of thoughts and feelings about a person and the person is not available to have a conversation. Perhaps you could write a letter to your former therapist telling her how you feel and asking the questions you are left pondering. You could even write a response to your letter in your former therapist’s voice. You could process this kind of letter-writing exercise with your current therapist in order to get the most out of it. It can be a surprisingly powerful exercise. Your new therapist may have some other helpful ideas, of course.

As far as your questions about ethics and potential recourse, it’s a little less straightforward than it may seem.

As far as your questions about ethics and potential recourse, it’s a little less straightforward than it may seem. According to the American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics, there is a prohibition against abandonment and neglect: “Counselors do not abandon or neglect clients in counseling. Counselors assist in making appropriate arrangements for the continuation of treatment, when necessary, during interruptions such as vacations, illness, and following termination.” However, there is also a section of the code on impairment that states, “Counselors monitor themselves for signs of impairment from their own physical, mental, or emotional problems and refrain from offering or providing professional services when impaired.” It sounds like your former therapist has just gone through a lot—the death of a parent, returning to her home country, and then retirement. It does seem possible that she might feel too impaired to work.

At this point, it does not seem like you can count on any assistance from your previous therapist in coming to terms with the end of the relationship, but you do have a new therapist who can partner with you to gain the closure you seek. I hope that process brings you peace.

Sincerely,
Sarah

Sarah Noel
Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC is a licensed psychotherapist living and working in Brooklyn, New York. She specializes in working with people who are struggling through depression, anxiety, trauma, and major life transitions. She approaches her work from a person-centered perspective, always acknowledging the people she works with as experts on themselves. She is honored and humbled on a daily basis to be able to partner with people at such critical points in their unique journeys.
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  • Marlene

    Marlene

    February 5th, 2016 at 5:51 PM

    While I empathize with the writer’s situation and disappointment, the therapist can hardly be accused of abandonment and does not deserve your anger so why should she submit to your demands to meet in person so you can heap your guilt and anger on her already overburdened shoulders! It is wrong to be thinking the therapist is guilty of a violation and seeking recourse under the “Code of Ethics”. Both of my parents were suddenly taken ill and we had to withdraw both from life support and wait weeks for them to die. It was the hardest thing I have ever been put through. I was 3000 miles from my husband, friends, therapist and church family. With the entire time spent waiting for them to take their next breath (or not) there isn’t ever a time that is right to even eat, use the bathroom or sleep, let alone thinking of work. After the death there are all the funeral arrangements, paperwork, clearing their house, getting it on the market and trying to maintain your own home and health. Some people, even therapists, have a very difficult and devastating time of grieving. Give your therapist some compassion as she is a human being too! She is a daughter in grief and you have no idea of what she has going on. You would expect to receive the same compassion and understanding.

  • vanessa

    vanessa

    February 6th, 2016 at 2:57 AM

    It is not the patients concern about the happenings of her therapist. You pay for therapy and therefore expect a decent termination of treatment considering it was a 6 year relationship. The therapist owes it to their client to give a successful closure. People receiving therapy are usually vulnerable and should be treated with care not to cause any further harm or psychological damage. A therapist signs up for the job being aware of with all these concerns in mind for the client. The therapist should therefore act as a professional and complete the treatment with the client feeling that a satisfactory closure has been met.

  • nolan

    nolan

    February 6th, 2016 at 6:50 AM

    Ha! One more life lesson that it is not always just about you

  • Angie R

    Angie R

    February 6th, 2016 at 1:07 PM

    I wouldn’t think that I would actually want to keep working with someone that I felt like abandoned me in my time of need. I am sure that the decision that she made were the right ones for her and I know that this feels very hurtful for you, but I think that I would find someone else to work with and move on from this person. I know that you are not necessarily friends with a therapist but I know that if I felt they were screwing me over I would be more than happy to find someone new to work with.

  • Sara

    Sara

    February 7th, 2016 at 11:48 AM

    First, to the client going through this, I am very sorry its happening. Unfortunately, now you need to find a therapist to work with not only on the issues you already had, but now, too, on the additional complications added by this unethical therapist. And, just for perspective, terrible actions by therapists and spiritual leaders can easily be just as damaging as terrible actions by family members. Also, therapists who love what they do and have the mature, adult ability to handle themselves and use support in their own persinal crises, do not do the kind of complete, ambiguous, and chaotic abandonment you’ve described here. There are plenty of therapists who’d never do this.

    I really question the article’s answer. It just doesn’t make sense. The whole purpose of having a therapy license is to hold ptofessionals accountable and preventing exactly this kind of hurtful conduct in the profession. Find out the name of the regulatory body that licensed your therapist. (for example, in California, its the Board of Behavioral Sciences). The licensing body is different from a code of ethics, the only thing this articke cites and which is why this article’s responcevis not adequate. The code of ethics just sets forth formal expectations. But, the licensing body can give warnings, impose fines, revoke the license, etc. Contact them and ask if they have a lawyer or a legal staff, then talk to them. Maybe the licensing body will take action. If not them, then do a google search for a lawyer or advocacy group.

    Lots of things happen in therapists’ lives – death, divorce, kids with drug and/or medical problems, etc. – and they don’t leave their clients completely stranded and rejected. I’m sure this therapist has weathered personal storms before and continued her practice. What did she do in those times? While losing her parent is traumatizing, still, the therapist ought to already have the skills and capacity, which she has already used in the past, to offer an adequate termination even in this crisis. Also, we’re talking termination here, not continuing her practice. From the therapist’s perspective, the prospect of a finite termination ought to provide the therapist a good deal of relief, enough to stay with her clients long enough to terminate. As well, the therapist should be engaged in her own therapy around her parent’s passing and around the strain of providing therapy during this crisis. And, lastly, remember, therapy is supposed to br something that this professional naturally loves and is good at, by both temperment and training; in times of stress and loss, your practice is a solace, or at least not an overwhelming burden, because you love the work. Sadly, the reality is, people do become professional therapists not because they love supporting others, but for other reasons – they like to be in control, they like the hours, whatever – and those therapists do stuff like this.

  • SallyS

    SallyS

    February 8th, 2016 at 3:37 AM

    Therapists are people, too. Have you considered that? Much has happened, this person has had their life altered. I can only pray that you did not lash out, pray that some thread of compassion might finf its way to you. Otherwise, After six years it would appear time wasted.

  • NinaV

    NinaV

    February 8th, 2016 at 3:40 AM

    Therapists are real people, and they deserve the same right to grieve and recover. Maybe you should try to see your therapist in a different light?

  • Julie

    Julie

    February 9th, 2016 at 5:40 AM

    Therapists have a duty not to harm clients. While true, even in the most diligent of circumstances, things can still occur that prevent a therapist from what is considered proper follow through. First, this client had a 6 year relationship. Knowing nothing more than what was written in, it seems appropriate to say that this behavior from the therapist was not an ongoing behavior. It also seems reasonable to say that there was some conversation about the therapists leaving and that there was some time involved to her being gone. All things considered, moving on to a new therapist was appropriate, the client trying to force a termination session to be able to move on in some ways is allowing that client to remain stuck. Best case scenario for the client seems to be using the new therapist to deal with the feelings of abandonment, rejection, and hurt, and focusing on the positive growth that can come from this. The former therapist, while we know nothing more than what is written in, is clearly experiencing issues that may make it even more unethical to have contact with this client. Hopefully, the client can see this. For those questioning a 6 year relationship- many clients move in and out of therapy over the course of time, but will continue to see the therapist with whom they are comfortable. On the other hand, if the client has had 6 years of continuous therapy with little growth then possibly this was the greatest move that could occur. Valuable lessons for the client can include resiliency, looking beyond black and white, time for growth, and viewing things from another perspective. However, in situations like this we must not be quick to assume, judge, or impart any “advice” without any further information.

  • Kaye F

    Kaye F

    February 10th, 2016 at 11:21 AM

    This person did not abandon you. I am not so sure that you might not need to continue therapy with someone else if you still have this kind of strong abandonment issues.

  • Helen

    Helen

    February 15th, 2016 at 8:43 AM

    Strong attachment is an expected, intended and therapeutic part of therapy. Getting so attached that it feels like being abandonment and being abandoned by the person who was holding this in the relationship is valid and real. This has happened to me and no one else is experiencing this but you. It is a real and a significant loss that should have been mitigated by the “expert” who is informed about their impact on clients. Therapists make mistakes and part of the therapy is also making a repair with their clients and apologizing in a sincere way. You’re feelings of attachment and commitment to your therapy were exactly what therapy is about when clients are doing their best for themselves. The rupture in the relationship is an opportunity for the therapist to know about it and respond with an appropriate repair that could be helpful and therapeutic. They may not be able to do this and then you will have to overcome this challenge with the support of your new therapist. Please know, that your feelings were completely human. We are supposed to fully connect and therapists know this and it is largely underestimated that clients can be hurt and even retraumatized when the therapist cannot fulfill their commitment.

  • Sara

    Sara

    February 20th, 2016 at 6:30 PM

    Yes, Helen, I totally agree. Good points and I think your post will help anyone in this situation.

  • John

    John

    February 15th, 2016 at 9:49 AM

    To a previous comment. Please do not place blame on clients for having been attached in therapy. This is almost always the purpose of therapy. They are supposed to become attached and to trust in therapy. It is part of having connection so that therapeutic work can take place in a safe place. This is encouraged by therapists when clients are ready. When therapists is ended or disrupted without adequate support, clients are so vulnerable to lose that relationship because they were often encouraged to and trust their therapist. People with trauma backgrounds are especially vulnerable in attachment, blame and abandonment is part of the wounding. It is the client’s needs that matter, not the therapist. The therapists take care of their needs outside of therapy in order to protect that client from any further harm. “abandonment issues” are what the therapists is there for. That comment could be very hurtful to this person. It was a courageous post for this person and it may have been hard to say something negative about their therapist.

  • Sara

    Sara

    February 20th, 2016 at 6:31 PM

    John, I think your post is right on the mark. I hope anyone going through something like this will read it, because it is truly helpful.

  • Rachel

    Rachel

    February 16th, 2016 at 3:26 PM

    Of course the therapist is human, and in struggling with her own life events may feel that she no longer has the internal resources to cope with looking after other people. But the attachment and abandonment issues for her patients are very real, and she does have a responsibility to deal with them in some way and not just leave her patients without some form of closure. But it doesn’t *have* to be in person if that is something she genuinely can’t manage. One option that no-one seems to have mentioned is that she could write to her patients – not an impersonal advisory letter, but an individual letter which tells the person how much she has valued working with them, perhaps mentioning a specific challenge they have met together, and that she is sorry that she can no longer provide the care they need. Maybe recommending a specific therapist who could help with their ongoing needs (the therapist is likely to have a far better network to draw on than the patient, and more knowledge of who might be a good match). A letter has the added advantage that it can act as a transitional object, a concrete (and hopefully positive) reminder of their past relationship that the patient can go back to again and again, until the patient has established a relationship with a new therapist.

  • Sara

    Sara

    February 20th, 2016 at 6:34 PM

    Rachel, great suggestions, very helpful. Your post, as well as those below by John, Helen, and myself, contain good info and a much needed perspective. Good post.

  • Loriane

    Loriane

    August 7th, 2018 at 7:03 PM

    The therapist is human, she has all the right to not be able to care for other people’s needs. I am in therapy, and I feel a great sense of attachment towards my psychologist. It is the intention of therapy : to feel attached and to trust so that you can work on issues in a safe environnment. I feel the therapist should and must offer closure, whether in person or not, then the client can work on the issues with another therapist who they feel comfortable with.

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