Professional Will for Therapists: Resources for Those Not in Denial

A professional will for therapists? Although many don’t realize it, all therapists should have a plan in place in case of unexpected serious illness or death. “Only therapists who are invulnerable and immortal don’t need to bother preparing a professional will,” state Kenneth S. Pope, PhD, ABPP, and Melba J. T. Vasquez, PhD, ABPP, in their “Therapist’s Guide for Preparing a Professional Will.”

Some of the areas to be addressed in this type of will include how clients will be notified about one’s temporary absence or sudden death, how records should be handled, and how to help clients transition to a different therapist.

Influential to my own commitment to this process is the work of Dr. Ann Steiner. Go to her website and you’ll find lots of info that can be applied to developing a professional will for therapists. Another possible resource is the Pope/Vasquez article cited above.

What Steiner says to therapists echoes what Pope/Vasquez indicate: “‘You will never die.’ Is that what you were told when you applied to graduate school? That is one theory I formulated when I began asking colleagues and workshop participants how they handle their absences from work and what plans they have for retiring or dealing with medical emergencies. The level of denial about mortality and limitations among therapists is impressive.”

Of course, this type of denial doesn’t apply only to therapists. Many people in general don’t anticipate and prepare for such practicalities.

When therapists resist this process it may be because it raises difficult feelings but it also may be due to not yet realizing or comprehending how important it is. My own consciousness, for instance, was raised some years ago when an acquaintance’s spouse, a therapist, died unexpectedly.

How do clients feel when faced with with such a loss? Here’s what Wendy Staley Colbert wrote on her blog after her own beloved therapist died suddenly: “Now, he was gone. Boom. No gradual illness, no transition to another counselor, no passing on of notes about my progress, nothing. I felt hopeless, lost, alone—my journey interrupted.”

Another notable example. One day Dan Kennedy arrived for a session to find that his therapist, Milton, wasn’t there. Or, rather, he was there but unavailable. Permanently. Kennedy’s story, as told at The Moth and aptly titled “And How Does That Make You Feel?,” has been appreciated by many. You can see it below:

Even if Milton did have a professional will in place, the fact is, someone was going to find him first. Regarding being too soon in the know, Kennedy has told Rachel MartinNPR: “It’s traumatic but, you know, the irony is therapy gives you the tools to deal with that.”

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