Can I help my therapist?
May 21, 2009 10:55 AM   Subscribe

My psychotherapist's husband is very ill, perhaps dying. I have a strong relationship with my therapist, but we have always maintained clear doctor/patient boundaries. What (if anything) can I do to offer support without overstepping the boundaries of our relationship?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Not to be glib, but ask her if there's anything you can do to offer support. She'll probably say no, but thank for the concern and that's how it should be. As you said there are clear doctor/patient boundaries and you are not and can not be her support network.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:58 AM on May 21, 2009

How do you know this?
posted by charlesv at 11:01 AM on May 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do what Brandon says. If she says no, though, you could send some anonymous flowers or a card to her, maybe send her a little cash or something for hospital/funeral expenses with a sympathy note.
posted by Night_owl at 11:05 AM on May 21, 2009

Assuming she has an administrative assistant or receptionist, call that person and ask if it would be appropriate to send the therapist a card.

I wouldn't do much more than a card, with a thoughtful sentence added. I'd make the sentence say something that recognizes that you are her patient, not friend, but as one human to another you acknowledge that her family is going through a tough time. So, it might be more along the lines of "I'm sorry to hear about your troubles" than "Let me know if you ever need to talk".
posted by Houstonian at 11:21 AM on May 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Be flexible about scheduling or cancellations on her part.
posted by availablelight at 11:46 AM on May 21, 2009 [4 favorites]

The clear doctor/patient boundaries you have always had with your therapist serve both you and her, so I would caution you to proceed very carefully here.

As charlesv noted, a great deal depends on how you learned about her husband's illness. If your therapist (or someone in her office) told you, then it would be quite acceptable to make an offer of support.

If you learned about the illness through any other means, though, you should not bring it up under any circumstances.
posted by DrGail at 11:55 AM on May 21, 2009

It really depends on how you came into this knowledge. If it isn't something the psychotherapist shared with you personally, I would think it best to leave it alone and make a mental note to be flexible and accommodating for schedule changes or cancellations -- just as availablelight has advised.

If the psychotherapist shared this with you, it might be appropriate to say something reserved and respectful, such as "my thoughts are with you" and to indicate that you are flexible with scheduling.

Regardless of how the information was shared, it may be appropriate to ask for a referral to a back-up therapist if your situation isn't stable enough to miss a few weeks or adjust to an erratic therapy schedule.
posted by cior at 12:56 PM on May 21, 2009

I have to second availablelight, and that's really about the most you can do. There are strict boundaries between shrinks and patients about support. You are NOT supposed to be "supporting" her, really. That's what her friends and family are for. You have a relationship that is legally constrained. You can express your condolences, and be flexible about scheduling, but it's up to her to set the tone and how to handle this.

(I have had this conversation with mine, since she has had family member issues.)
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:41 PM on May 21, 2009

This exact situation came up for me. My therapist's husband had terminal cancer and I learned about it because she told me that she needed to take a leave of absence from work for a few months while he died. My therapist was the sort who would use examples from her own life to help illustrate concepts we discussed, so it didn't seem out of line for her to have shared this with me. Other therapist/patient relationships are different, so you'll really have to take into account how you learned of this and other factors to decide what best to do.

For me it came down to knowing that another human being I interacted with on a regular basis was going to be going through an extremely rough time. I just needed to express sympathy and support to her on some level, so at the end of our last session before she took her leave I gave her a small, gently humorous book and told her that if she was ever feeling like she needed a break from her real life, maybe the book would provide her with one, or something equally ineloquent. The point is that it was about me feeling the need to do something, not about her counting on me or expecting or even wanting me to do anything.

I was prepared for her to say thanks but I can't accept this, but she didn't. Maybe she broke some rule of therapy or something in accepting it, but we went on to have a normal therapist/patient relationship after she came back a few months later.

But if you learned of this from someone other than her, I would definitely not bring it up to her.

If you are feeling the need to do something but can't find a way to make it seem appropriate for you to do so, then why not make a donation to a charity connected to the husband's illness or, better yet, to a mental health charity? Maybe your therapist wouldn't know that you did it, but you'd know you did it and that it was meant as a supportive gesture. Perhaps that would be enough.
posted by Brody's chum at 6:03 PM on May 21, 2009

I am/was very close to my last therapist, and we maintained those boundaries. Wouldn't feel the slightest hesitation about hugging him (after offering condolences, not out-of-the-blue), sending a card, or sending flowers.

None of these breaks any boundaries. It's a human reaction to a singular event, not a shift in daily dynamics. These are actions of common decency - not required, but certainly acceptable in polite, otherwise formal relationships.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:02 PM on May 21, 2009

Simple but kind card.
posted by mynameismandab at 11:53 PM on May 28, 2009

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