When a Patient Dies . . . Should the Therapist Attend the Funeral?

When a Patient Dies . . . Should the Therapist Attend the Funeral?

by Richard P. Halgin

Richard Halgin shares the story of a long-term client's unexpected death, and how he managed his professional boundaries around this tragic event.
Unless we are treating medically ill or very elderly patients, we're not likely to think of our patients as being at imminent risk of death, at least not while they are under our care. Patients leave therapy for any number of reasons, but few clinicians are prepared for the possibility that termination would take place because a patient has died. I had been worried about Jim* for months, urging him to see a physician for his deteriorating health, particularly his strained breathing. The fact that Jim was similar to me in age (early fifties) made the issue all the more personal for me. When I began seeing Jim as a psychotherapy patient some nine years earlier, our expectation was that we would meet for only a few months. Jim had grown increasingly concerned about troubles in his marriage, and he wanted to figure out what he was doing wrong. The story that unfolded during the subsequent years was tragic in so many ways. Oddly, as matters got worse in Jim's life, the alliance between the two of us got stronger.
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Richard P. Halgin

Richard P. Halgin is a Professor of Psychology in the Clinical Psychology Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is a Board Certified Clinical Psychologist and has had over three decades of clinical, supervisory, and consulting experience. He has published three books including Abnormal Psychology: Clinical Perspectives on Psychological Disorders (McGraw-Hill, 6th edition in press, 2010 copyright, co-authored with Susan Whitbourne), Taking Sides: Controversial Issues in Abnormal Psychology (McGraw-Hill, 5th edition, 2009), and A Casebook in Abnormal Psychology: From the Files of Experts (1998, Oxford University Press, co-edited with Susan Whitbourne).

At the University of Massachusetts his course in Abnormal Psychology is one of the most popular offerings on campus, attracting an enrollment of more than 500 students, and he has been honored with the Distinguished Teaching Award among other awards. He also holds the position of Visiting Professor of Psychology at Amherst College, where he teaches Abnormal Psychology on an annual basis. Dr. Halgin is the author of more than fifty journal articles and book chapters in the fields of psychotherapy, clinical supervision, and professional issues in psychology. He served as Chair of the GRE-Psychology Board of Examiners and as an Associate of the Ethics Committee of the American Psychological Association. Dr. Halgin maintains an active psychotherapy practice in the town of Amherst, Massachusetts.

Thank you for this honest reflection in losing a treasured client. If anyone reading this could refer other material that may address such matters, I would appreciate it. Specifically, is it ever appropriate to see family members in therapy following the loss of a loved one, considering that the client was, herself, a psychologist and always wanted her family to seek help and spoke openly about her work with me. Thank you.
Danielle Green, PhD.
Thank you for your honesty in this piece. Sometimes it seems like I, as a therapist, need permission to feel okay about being affected personally by my clients. This article affirms a therapist's humanity while at the same time values a therapist's professionalism.
Sarah Collins
Thank you for this. I lost my client two days ago and feel compelled to be at his funeral and yet conflicted on the professional boundaries. You left me with a lot to consider.
Cynthia E. Guzman
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