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Endings: Beyond the Stages of Grief

A woman holds an umbrella. In The Forgiving Self, Psychologist Robert Karen writes,”all lives are rent with losses from the very beginning.” The list of authors addressing this fact is very, very long, and one classic book, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ On Death and Dying, introduced many of us to the four stages of grief.

Yet in our offices we often fail to recognize or acknowledge the more frequent losses both we and our clients experience. They’re ubiquitous. These losses may be as simple as closing our eyes and going to sleep at the end of the day, ending a conversation on the telephone, or bidding farewell to a friend when we drop them off at the airport. Or a client may end therapy before we thought it was the right time, a spouse or close friend may announce they are ending their relationship with us. And death comes to all living things.

We have many options for dealing with these endings. Ernst Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Denial Of Death addresses this at length. Drawing from the science of fractals, each ending can be understood as a mirror or recapitulation of previous endings we have experienced. How have we been impacted by previous endings? How have we previously related to or understood endings? Do I believe and/or participate in ending rituals such as a football player’s dance in the end zone, jubilation after a sports event, a wedding, a funeral? What about an afterlife or reincarnation?

Back in my office, am I, as James Masterson writes, the “guardian of the real self” of my client? Can I attend with compassion and curiosity to my client’s ending experiences—the end of the session, the end of a job, loss of sight, hearing, dexterity, agile and creative thinking, the loss of hope, loss of resources? How do I deal with such endings in my own life? Do I have a well from which I can draw compassion, curiosity, and patience? Does my narcissism weave fantasies into apparent realities: that I will not die, that not winning the lottery or catching the big fish was not a disappointment? Does my depression keep me enmeshed in my losses and endings?

Do I have to have a answers? And what meaning do I give to a client’s report of an ending? Do I notice at all, mine or yours?

© Copyright 2009 by Dennis Thoennes, PhD, ABPP. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Cal

    December 1st, 2009 at 5:21 PM

    I had to long ago resign myself that from the very beginning we are dying, it is all just a matter of how long it takes you to get to that atge of your life. I think that the best way to live though is not to focus on when the end will come but living every day so that when it does come I have no regrets.

  • ray

    December 2nd, 2009 at 5:35 AM

    Well said Cal… it is important to leave everyday like it is our last, making best use of each day and each minute of our lives, doing constructive work and trying to help fellow-beings whenever possible. It is through such actions, that we will have no regrets when our end does embrace us.

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