Death and the Therapist

One of the hardest things I’ve had to do as a therapist is announce a colleague’s death.  For many years, I worked with Robin Cooper in a therapeutic community we’d both set up.  This community, one of the Philadelphia Association therapeutic communities, was based in an ordinary family house and was aimed at giving asylum and a home to those who had never felt at home in the world.  There were nine residents, with a variety of psychiatric histories.

Robin was a close friend and colleague, someone I’d known since I first came to London thirty years earlier.  We’d grown up together, having shared a flat, and worked together on the way.

I was home, having dinner before going off to a late house meeting when I received the call from the PA secretary.  Reporters had been calling the office to find out background about Robin after his death in a climbing accident.  Of course I knew Robin, an experienced climber, was off in the Alps, and I’d vaguely considered the possibility he would come to grief.  But Robin dead?  I couldn’t believe it.   I called my other colleague, Marie Laure, with whom I’d be running that evening’s meeting.  We were both in a state of shock.

And yet we knew that in half an hour we’d have to tell a house full of incredibly vulnerable people about this – it would be better that they heard it from us than in the morning papers – and we knew they too would be devastated, that the relative safety we were attempting to establish for them would be shattered.

On the drive to the community (which seemed much shorter than usual), Marie Laure and I shared our disbelief and prepared as best as we could for what was to come.

There were inevitably stragglers to the meeting, and we sent other residents to get them to come down to the big table where we met.  Then we made our announcement.

Everyone was in tears, including, of course, us.  One resident confessed that he’d read that a Scottish climber called Robin Cooper had died in the Alps, but that he hadn’t connected this with our Robin until the meeting started and we asked for people to fetch down the stragglers.

It’s a funny thing being a therapist.  You are meant to be on top of things, even when, as R.D. Laing once said to me in supervision, you are just barely managing to stay in your chair.  But often, being on top of things, in therapy and life, is a forlorn hope.  (I am indebted to the Sharpe series for my understanding of the original meaning of this phrase – those soldiers chosen to be the first through a breach in the enemy’s fortress – a suicide mission.)

You just have to ride the wave and keep your head above water, as best you can.  This is what Marie Laure and I did at this meeting.  The therapy that occurred was all of us, residents and therapists, being in it together, and the knowledge that sometimes, you just have to bear the unbearable.

As I recall it, the meeting turned into a wake.  We opened a bottle, and shared our memories of Robin, of things he’d said and done, of his characteristic ways of expressing himself (Robin did a great inadvertent imitation of Columbo – “So let me get this straight… you did this… and this…  and for this reason?”) and what was entirely loveable about him.  Doing this helped all of us cope with our feelings, and I doubt that anything else I could have done that night would have been more healing than being in a roomful of people who loved Robin, though from very different positions.

I recognize that in a strange way, this blog is a companion piece to my previous one, “Tough.”  This meeting was one in which we all had to face something that we couldn’t change, however much we wanted to, whatever we would have given to change it.  It was just “tough.”

Like Sharpe’s forlorn hope, we had to face death together, not ours certainly, but of a part of ourselves.  Those soldiers who survived being the forlorn hope were considered to be in a state of grace.  And I think that we all, therapists and clients alike, felt privileged to have shared in Robin’s life and death in the way we did.

It may have been tough, but not “just” tough.

3 thoughts on “Death and the Therapist

  1. Liesel Shineberg

    I feel for you, Have lost two of Ed’s cousins in the last week – they left many happy memories that will live in my heart forever – or, at least while I am still ‘here’.

  2. Vanessa Bright

    What a wonderful post. You handled this very sensitively, and it’s inspiring that there was healing to be had in being in it together… you were all grieving together and that is a gift.

    I myself have lost a therapist, and one thing that makes things so difficult in the long term is not having had this kind of experience where people would all be “in it”. I do have a new therapist who happens to have been close friends with the one who died, which helps a lot, but I still struggle and often do a search in the hopes that someone out there has written about her. You are inspiring me — perhaps I will be the one to write, since there are probably others out there searching like I am.

    Thank you for writing about this — one of the most difficult topics.

    1. joefriedman Post author

      Thank you for this. I know that losing a therapist is all the more difficult for the lack of the ability to properly “share” it with those who knew him/her.


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