Every day I’ve watched the ancient horse chestnut tree outside the window of the art therapy room at the hospice transform from a bare winter skeleton into a plump cushion of vibrant leaves. It’s formed an elegant backdrop to my process of leaving my job as a hospice counsellor after many years. As spring has been emerging from winter’s end, this beautiful tree has mirrored my own sense of how intertwined beginnings and endings are, how a new beginning can often only find space when an ending makes way for it. The chestnut has spoken to me of my feeling at times excited and exuberant, whilst at others unsettled, unsure and grief-laden. This mingling of old and new, known and unknown, mourning and celebration has been imbued with loss and yet also full of potential.
There has been an added resonance for me to leaving a hospice, a place that is in itself all about the end of life. One morning, walking to work across the common shortly before my last day, I felt an echo of what it might be like for terminally ill patients, to be ‘the one that is leaving’. I realised I had said those words – ‘I’m leaving’ – over and over again during the last ten weeks. Each time, I had absorbed both the meaning that it held for me and for the other person. I suddenly became aware of the cumulative resonance of all the goodbyes I had already said, with clients, my clinical supervisor and our volunteers. I anticipated the goodbyes that were still ahead of me, with my final remaining clients, my colleagues, as well as with the place itself. I felt a curious weight and lightness all at once.
It seems to me that each ending throughout our lives prefigures our own death. That every time I say goodbye, every time I leave, I am preparing and practising for my own final ending when I die. That all my endings are interconnected. I picture a cat’s cradle of endings and loss across my lifetime. I feel a tug on the thread that traces back to my 18-year-old self, sitting on the platform of the train station with my mum, leaving home for the first time, waiting for the train to take me to London and then to France, feeling adventurous and afraid in equal measure.
The decision to leave the hospice took months, an arduous, turbulent and often unbearable process of ‘trying’ to make the ‘right’ decision. After my decision, gradually, a new clarity emerged, the ‘brightness’ of the figure emerging from the ground. If deciding whether to leave had been agonising, I knew intuitively how I wanted to leave. I knew I wanted to give myself, my clients and my team enough time and space, so I gave a considerably longer notice period than the month required by my contract. I wanted to take the utmost care with my endings with clients, especially in the context of our work with death and dying. I sensed clearly what was important to me in each of my goodbyes. I embraced my feelings as they arose: sadness, relief, excitement, frustration, anger, disappointment, pride. I mourned leaving my immediate colleagues whom I love, respect and feel I belong with, enriched by working intensively together through the height of the pandemic. Of course, I had moments of doubt and fear. At times, I wanted the end to come more quickly, at others I wanted to stave it off. At one point, it felt like a slow painful death. I mourned my sense of what could have been and was not possible.
Now, having left, I know the field is still reconfiguring. I feel at ease that a new beginning is slowly taking form and my ending continues. I am sifting what I want to keep hold of and what I want to let go of from my years at the hospice. I am resting. I am exploring. My process continues. And I am all too aware what a privilege it is that I am even able to choose this ending and how I want it to be, even to have this time to reflect on it, when I think of how many violent and brutal endings are being horrifically forced upon people in Ukraine through death, disappearance and displacement.
When she was much younger, one of my daughters asked me what happens if you’re halfway through a book when you die. She wanted to know if you ever get to find out the ending. She thought perhaps that when you arrived in heaven someone would tell you or the book might be there waiting for you. Or maybe, because it’s a magical place, you might just know the end without ever actually having to read the rest of the book! It seemed perplexing for her that you might never know. Just as this time of pseudo-post-pandemic masks COVID’s long tail and in the same way that the equinox on 21 March does not really signify an overnight change from winter to spring, endings tend not to be neat and tidy, once and for all, simple. Endings are much more mysterious. Maybe we never fully get to know the end.
Post-script: I almost abandoned this piece of writing. Thank you to the editorial team for an inspiring dialogue at our last meeting which was the support I needed to come back to it. A wonderful experience of ‘we are not alone’.
Fiona Turnbull is a gestalt psychotherapist based in south London with special interests in grief, loss and gender. For many years, she was a senior counsellor in a hospice alongside her private practice. She is a member of the editorial team for this newsletter.