Termination in dance/movement therapy.

Often when we speak of the therapeutic relationship, the relationship between the therapist and client, we discuss forming the relationship.  We hope our clients will trust us in order to create a secure attachment between ourselves and our clients.  The secure attachment is the crux of dance/movement therapy (and therapy in general) that allows us to assist our clients in therapeutic change.  We do this by creating a safe container in the therapy room, attuning to our clients affect, and mirroring our clients movement while in dance/movement therapy (DMT) groups.  Something we speak less of, however, is ending the therapeutic relationship. When and how do we terminate with clients, or how do they end the relationship with us?  Termination is a natural process of all our relationships, especially the one between ourselves and our clients.

Maybe I misspoke when I said we talk less about termination, when what I really meant to say is, it’s more difficult to talk about termination with our clients.  Personally, hitherto, I have not had to deal with termination often in my work as a dance/movement therapist.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I work at a day rehabilitation program for adults with developmental disabilities (DD).  The program is often a post-high school opportunity for my clients, and thus is usually a long-term placement.  I have worked with the same clients since beginning my position in 2013 and had even worked with many of them as an intern in previous years.  Needless to say, there have been very few incidents of termination with my clients.

Recently however, I experienced an unexpected termination with a client.  My client unfortunately endured a traumatic event and had to be removed from the family home, disrupting not only my client’s social/therapy services, but also the client’s life in general.  One day the client was at the program and the next day the client was not.  I have to admit I was deeply horrified and saddened to hear about what my client had endured.  I was also deeply frustrated that I was not able to say good-bye.  What is even more distressing is that, as the way it looks now, I won’t have the opportunity to help my client process the trauma as it is almost certain the client will not return to the program.   To put it plainly, I felt helpless to know I wouldn’t be able to help my client and there really wasn’t much I could do about it.

In response to the abrupt good-bye (or lack thereof), I’ve had to cope with missing my client and not having the opportunity to properly say good-bye.  Oftentimes termination in the therapeutic relationship happens gradually.  We speak of termination many weeks in advance, to give ample time to discuss the process of saying good-bye.  In my case, however, the termination came abruptly and without warning.  I had no time to interpret the implications of not seeing this client again (both for myself personally but also what this means for my client).  I get sad every time I see the client’s name on my DMT group attendance sheets, and when other clients express that they miss this client too.  Together we’ve processed our feelings of nostalgia, sadness, and frustration as other client’s weren’t given the opportunity to say good-bye either.

What bothers me the most is the missed opportunity to be able to help my client through the recent trauma. I say this in a selfish way, because I know that I as a dance/movement therapist would be able to help my client process the trauma in a profound way.  I say this in a frustrated way because the universe never allowed me this chance. This particular client struggles with verbal expression emphasizing the importance of DMT (and other creative arts therapies) since trauma itself is often stored in the lower area of our brains and in our bodies, and movement is a way to express it.   I would have loved to have moved with this client and witness the movement, or maybe we’d just lay on the studio floor next to each and cry.  I am also curious about what support the client is currently receiving if any at all.  If the client is not receiving support for whatever reason, what are the implications of this on my client’s lived experience or how does this impact my client’s trust in the body?  Where is the trauma being stored if the client is unable to express it?

The recent events with my client has reminded me of the messiness of termination.  Although we may, as dance/movement therapists, attempt to prepare ourselves and our clients for termination by creating movement around what good-bye means or what life will be like after the therapeutic relationship is over, there are some incidents where we aren’t gifted this opportunity.  Sometimes we can’t prepare for good-bye.  Sometimes termination comes unexpectedly or abruptly, and we are merely left with the reverberations of what the therapeutic relationship was.   Although I know deep down the universe will somehow take care of this client, I feel sad that I won’t be able to help process the recent endured trauma.  Termination is a natural process of relationships in general, but that doesn’t make it any easier to cope with.


About emilyadannunzio

Board Certified-Dance/Movement Therapist. Movement Analyst (GL-CMA). Researcher. Dancer. Bartender. Detroit, MI.
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4 Responses to Termination in dance/movement therapy.

  1. Jeannine says:

    Lovely tribute to your client. 🙂

  2. Audrey Albert King says:

    I love the way you wrote that Emily, so true and from the heart. Sometimes, I walk into work and see a framed photo of a resident that passed away. It is difficult to process that and start my day running groups. One day I walked in to find two photos flanking each other. it wa especially difficult to locate the ground. I would like to be notified, others do not when away from work. Some HIPPA around emails going out. I am wondering about what you describe as desiring more of a natural termination (ideal) and what I may now think of as a trauatic termination. Interesting, thanks so much for sharing your experience.

    • I suppose there is no such thing as an ideal termination but having preparation makes termination more manageable, maybe? As in, if we can plan and process termination it makes it easier to cope with, rather than one day showing up to work and a client is no longer there. Like you said, it can be un-grounding and disorientating. Thanks for sharing, Audrey. And as always, thanks for reading and commentating. If you ever want to guest blog please let me know.

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