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The Importance of Proper Closure or an Invitation to Working With Ghosts

by Angela Moore

We have all experienced it, a client is doing the work, showing up and then suddenly, they are gone, nowhere to be found. Your client has ghosted you. As a therapist, you feel lost, wondering what happened. You have so many questions. Was it something that you did, something that you didn’t do, is the client okay, are they even still alive? Ghosting can be about so many things. It can definitely be about a client’s own issues. But ghosting can also be about us as therapists, our practice and our own journeys.

You should definitely follow up with a client that has ghosted as per your policy for reaching out to clients. They may need you to reach out at that moment. This blog post will explore the ghosting experience as an invitation to therapists for inner exploration and setting expectations with clients.

Ghosting can be about many things in our own world as therapists. We can explore counter-transference, our own abandonment issues and our own death or death to self. There are so many theories to go back to with these themes – Freud (counter transference and unresolved conflicts); Bowlby and Ainsworth (attachment and abandonment); Jung (shadow self, spirituality, archetypes). This is just the tip of the iceberg for theories.

Let’s look at ghosting from a cultural perspective. Ghosting as a term really entered the popular culture with online dating. You are looking for a relationship and you begin to engage in getting to know someone online. Everything seems to be going so well. Then without warning – the object of your online affection is gone. Really gone. Not only do the messages stop, but their whole dating profile has been deleted. You have no way of connecting with them ever again. You could almost believe that the person had never existed if it wasn’t for the hurt it leaves you with. It can also happen in real life relationships if a partner avoids you physically, bocks your number, block your email and blocks you on social media. It is unexpected, it is hurtful and it is cowardly. Ghosting has become part of our modern culture as a way to be done with a relationship and not take any responsibility for it.

But why is it called ghosting? What is a ghost? Folklore would have us believe that a ghost is a disembodied spirit, once human, that has not been able to cross to the “other side.” Some say that a ghost is created from a sudden, unexpected death without closure. Often a ghost cannot be seen or experienced by everyone, leading some to believe that the one that can see the ghost is crazy. A ghost is something that can make us feel alone and question ourselves.

What does a ghost do? A ghosts haunts you. It takes away your peace and safety, it changes the rules of reality. Ghosts appear and disappear at will and are not able to be controlled. Ghosts are selfish and unsettling. Ghosts stir up fear. Ghosts live in the shadows and beckon us to enter the shadows to find them. When we enter the shadow, the ghost is gone.

Ghosting is a call to do our own work as therapists, to step into our shadows. It beckons us to seek closure in our own relationships both past and present. Ghosting is also an invitation to change the way we set expectations with our clients. Brian Kunde, LCSW, a co-worker of mine at Southwest Psychotherapy Associates, has a speech that he gives new clients at the beginning of therapy. The speech given at the beginning of the therapeutic relationship sets out expectations for closure. It reminds clients as they begin the therapy journey that there will one day be an ending of that journey and advises them that closure is good for both the client and the therapist. It helps plant the seed from the beginning that endings are important. He sets out expectations and advises that when it is time for the relationship to end, there is supposed to be a termination session where a review is had over the work that has been done and both parties are given the opportunity to say goodbye and reflect. He then advises the client that if that termination session is had, he will welcome them back in the future if they ever want to re-engage in the therapy relationship. He also informs them that if the termination session is not had, they will not be accepted back as a client. It is an invitation given at the beginning of the therapy relationship to start considering the end of the therapy relationship. It is an invitation to not disappear. It is an invitation not to ghost.

This sort of considering the end from the beginning is advisable and a healthy way to set expectations for closure with your clients.