Stacy Feintuch first saw her therapist more than two decades ago, when she was having problems conceiving. “My mother-in-law found her, and I thought she was amazing,” says Feintuch, a writer and client relations administrator who lives in Livingston, New Jersey. After having two daughters, she stopped going to therapy.
Then, when her daughters were 10 and 12, Feintuch’s husband passed away from a heart attack. One day after his funeral, the therapist called — she’d heard about his death. “Would you like to come in?” she asked. Feintuch immediately said yes. “We just clicked,” she says. “Her husband had also passed away at a young age. She totally got me.”
Less than a year later, Feintuch’s therapist ended a session with news of her own: She was retiring.
“What? What do you mean? You can’t retire!” Feintuch recalls thinking. “I was a little angry,” she says. “She called me, she asked me to come back in and I did, and I still believe she must have known at some point that she was thinking about retiring. I wish she would have told me up front rather than waiting.”
It’s natural to be taken aback when a therapist tells you they can’t see you anymore because they’re retiring, moving or going on leave.
“Those relationships are incredibly deep. It can feel like abandonment or bring up deep grief or anger that they are not available to you,” says Charlotte Howard, a psychologist and CEO of Deep Eddy Psychotherapy in Austin, Texas.
But there are things both therapists and patients can do to make the transition as easy as possible. Here’s some advice, straight from the source: therapists who’ve both gone on leave themselves and stepped in for colleagues.
Talk in advance
Unless it’s an emergency, most therapists will give you at least a few months’ notice that they are taking a short, long-term or even permanent break from their practice. This lets you process your emotions and talk about your concerns before they leave. Although you might feel uncomfortable telling them you’re angry or anxious, speak up. “Sometimes we don’t want to hurt the therapist’s feelings, or we want to be supportive of what is going on in their life, so we may try to put on a strong or brave face and not let ourselves feel what our honest response is,” Howard says. “But then we have to grieve it later by ourselves, and we don’t get to use the situation therapeutically.”
In other words, your therapist is there to help you through exactly this type of scenario.
Don’t fear the goodbye
The farewell process can double as a healing process if you ease into it ahead of time — especially if past relationships haven’t ended well for you. “A lot of people have had bad goodbyes where someone abandoned or dropped them,” Howard explains. “So to have an experience where you are cared for and able to grieve with the person you are saying goodbye to can be healing.”
Make a plan together
Your therapist isn’t just going to say “see ya” and let you figure things out yourself. Depending on the duration and nature of their departure, they might offer phone sessions or suggest seeing a colleague of theirs. Choose what feels right to you. And if you try something and don’t like it, trust your gut. “My therapist offered to do phone sessions,” Feintuch says. “I wasn’t thrilled, but I agreed. We did a couple of sessions, but it wasn’t the same. It felt different from sitting across from each other, and I don’t know if her heart wasn’t in it anymore. So I stopped seeing her.”
Be sure your therapists talk
As in the beginning of any relationship, seeing a new therapist means telling your backstory. If you’re only planning to seek help elsewhere while your therapist is on leave, they can minimize the amount of time you spend playing catch-up by reaching out to the pinch hitter. “I ask patients, ‘What do you want me to share with the new clinician?’ and then I make a phone call so they have background that is helpful,” says Merav Gur, a clinical psychologist in New York. Your therapist could also do this if they’re retiring, to make the transition from one fainting couch to the next as smooth as possible.
View it as a good break
Even if your current therapist preps the next person, you’ll still need to fill in information gaps and re-share some details about your life. It’s just part of the getting-to-know-you process. But rather than go into your first few sessions with a new therapist thinking, Ugh, I have to tell my story all over again, try looking at the forced restart as an opportunity. “It can be very healing to tell your story from the start again,” Howard says. “You change so much in therapy, and if it’s been years since you [first told someone what happened], you now have a new sense of self.”
Stay on track with your goals
Before you begin seeing someone new, take time during a therapy session to discuss, and even write down, your treatment goals. That way, if your therapist forgets to tell the next person about your goals, you can easily bring them up to speed. And stay open-minded. Chances are any new therapist will approach treatment differently from the last person you saw. “It took a while to feel comfortable with someone new,” says Tara Mandarano, a full-time freelance writer and editor whose therapist moved away after about two years of working together on her depression, relationship problems and daily anxieties. “The positive of switching therapists is [getting] a new person with a fresh perspective on your challenges and worries. She brings a different take to our conversations.”
Consider cutting back your sessions
When weekly or twice-weekly therapy appointments become part of your routine, you might not be inclined to take a step back and assess whether you need to keep up with such frequent sessions. Changing therapists gives you a chance to take inventory of your emotional and mental health and consider how you’ve changed since beginning therapy. “Assuming there are no high-risk behaviors, oftentimes it’s a wonderful opportunity for a patient to try to cope on their own,” Gur says. “Can they take the tools they’ve learned in therapy and apply them on their own?”
This could mean seeing a new therapist less often or terminating treatment altogether. “With your therapist, assess how much progress has been made and if it’s time to let go,” adds Gur. When she went on maternity leave, Gur gave her patients homework so they’d keep making progress in her absence.
Still, homework isn’t enough for everyone. For instance, Gur says, someone who is deeply depressed or has suicidal tendencies should continue receiving professional care while their therapist is on leave.
Have a support network
When you know you won’t have access to your therapist for weeks or months, it’s important to have other people to turn to. “I have a very, very good friend whose father passed away when she was 12, and she became my therapist. She got everything I said,” Feintuch says.
Even if you don’t plan to see anyone else for treatment while your therapist is gone, most therapists will provide the number of a clinician you can call in an emergency. There are also free hotlines for different mental health conditions. Check out this list from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Decide if you want to go back
If you choose to see someone else while your therapist is on leave and end up connecting with the new person, what should you do when your original therapist comes back? When you’re working through an issue, it can feel disruptive to switch back and forth between therapists. You might be conflicted about whom to see. “This can be a good reflective process,” Gur says. “What do you feel you are getting with your new therapist versus the old one?”
Luckily most therapists realize that patients’ lives don’t stand still when they take a break from their practice. Howard says they should give you their blessing to stay the course with a new therapist: “Any good therapist will support whatever is best for you.”