It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to say to a young person and I felt nervous saying it.
I’ve had to say difficult things before. When I was a teacher, I had to punish young people for various misbehaviours. When I was a youth worker, I had to ban them from the Youth Centre if they’d done something particularly heinous. Often they thought this was unfair and I was immediately unpopular, as I knew I would be.
But with Olly it was different. This felt momentous, as if there was no going back once I’d said it, as if I was a judge delivering the verdict that would change everything.
We’d been meeting as therapist and client for a couple of years. He was sixteen and getting ready to leave school, so the end of our working relationship was imminent. But that wasn’t what made saying what I had to say so difficult. As a therapist, I’ve ended relationships with hundreds of young people and, although I approach each ending carefully, they rarely feel momentous. Usually, we’ve done our work and the young person is ready to move on.
This was different. His best friend had moved to another country the year before and, to Olly’s great sadness, they’d lost touch. Despite an initial flutter of conversation between them about his friend’s exciting new world, and despite Olly’s attempts to keep his friend updated with the latest gossip from the old world, his friend communicated less and less.
We’d spent a long time talking about this: about whether his friend missed him, about whether his friend thought of him, about how his friend compared Olly with the new friends he was bound to be making, about the meaning of his friend’s silence. What had their relationship been worth? Had Olly really mattered or had he just been a convenience? In particular, we thought about relationships ending and whether this is inevitable or is a sign that a relationship has been false when it doesn’t last. We thought about whether it’s possible to have loved someone and no longer need to see them.
I asked him how he was feeling about the end of our therapeutic relationship, now fast approaching.
He looked at me fiercely. “Will you remember me?”
It was the question he wanted to ask his friend: “Will you remember me? Will you think of me? Will you still love me? Did you ever love me?”
I knew how much this question meant to Olly and that was why I felt nervous. Although I knew it would upset him, I had to tell him the truth. I judged that it was what he needed to hear – developmentally - although he wouldn’t want to hear it.
“I’ll remember you for a while,” I said, “but then I’ll start to forget things about you and, in ten years’ time – if I’m being really honest - I’ll probably have forgotten you.”
He looked distraught.
I struggled between my head telling me that this was the kindest, most therapeutic thing to say, and my heart telling me that I was hurting him unnecessarily.
“People forget each other,” I went on. “New people come into our lives and our memories fade. That doesn’t mean that our relationships are false when we’re with people or that we don’t love them. It just means that everything comes to an end and that’s normal.”
I felt awful, hoping I’d done the right thing in helping him move from a child’s world where if something isn’t there, it doesn’t exist, to an adult’s world where things change, people change and we learn to bear this as an inevitable fact of life.
For a few weeks afterwards, we talked about other things, as if we were both taking stock, both adjusting to the reality we’d acknowledged.
Then one day he mentioned it again. “I’ve been thinking about what we talked about,” he said. “I didn’t really get it at the time and I hated you for saying it, but I think you were right. I know there’s going to be someone else sitting in this chair soon and I’ll be replaced but I don’t mind about that as much as I did. I know I’ll remember you for a long time but – you’re right – I’ll probably start to forget you, just like you’ll forget me.”