What Happens To Clients When Their Therapist Dies?

Earlier this year I lost my friend, mentor and business partner, Dr. Lavinia Ekong, unexpectedly. As painful and tragic as her death was for me, her clients were even more devastated. I’ve had the challenging responsibility of sitting with her clients and students to process their grief and sadness. As a therapist Dr. Ekong made her clients feels safe, understood and not judged. For many of them this relationship was the first time in their lives they felt this way so to lose her this quickly and unexpectedly was a reverberation felt deeply in their lives.

Several of Dr. Ekong’s clients have questioned whether it’s normal to experience this kind of grief over someone who was not a family member or friend. I do my best to reassure them it is normal to experience grief over the loss of their therapist. Consider this, your therapist is often someone with whom you share your innermost secrets, your truth; someone whom you felt safe to reveal your authentic self to.  In return, you felt unconditional, positive regard from your therapist. I was lucky enough to experience this with Dr. Ekong as my friend, so I know that her clients experienced this as well.

When a therapist dies unexpectedly there is so much left unknown. Many clients had questions about the unexpected way Dr. Ekong died and felt unprepared for and even angry about her death. It’s normal for clients to experience feelings of anger and abandonment with the death of their therapist. Others may experience worry about the therapist’s family members and friends.

Many clients had questions about how to gain access to treatment records if needed in the future, how to find another therapist, and how to know if one is ready to re-enter treatment. Due to my professional relationship with Dr. Ekong, I was able to assist her clients by identifying clinicians within Dr. Ekong’s practice to whom their treatment could be transferred. Therapists are required to have a professional will, which outlines the steps to be taken for their clients and the practice should the therapist die.

Some of Dr. Ekong’s clients have also experienced hesitance at the idea of resuming therapy with another clinician, as though they are replacing her in some way. There is also the frustration of starting treatment over again, having to share themselves with yet another professional. To these clients I say it is important to know that continuing with your healing is exactly what Dr. Ekong would have wanted; she would not want her death to be the reason for potentially undoing all the great work you have already accomplished. Resuming your treatment with another provider is a continuation and extension of the work you and she were already doing together. Although it can be scary to reveal yourself to another therapist, it can provide the space you need to grieve your loss and continue your growth and healing.

In the end, I hope that Dr. Ekong’s clients know that whatever emotions arise as a result of her death are normal given the loss they have experienced. Her clients have every right to grieve her death. She may not have been a family member or close friend, but for many client’s Dr. Ekong knew as much, or more, about their lives as their own friends and family. She had a profound impact on the lives she touched through her work, and her clients remain a walking, talking testament of her dedication to improving families, one client at a time.

La-Toya Gaines, PsyD, LP (’12)

Dr. La-Toya Gaines is a psychologist, educator, and public speaker with over a decade of experience serving the greater Detroit Metro area. A fully licensed and practicing psychologist, she is the founder and president of Family Matters Counseling, in Southfield, Michigan. Dr. Gaines taught at MSP as an adjunct and associated faculty member for many years before joining the core faculty from 2016-2018. She also served as Member at Large on the Executive Leadership Team with the Society for Humanistic Psychology.

Dr. Gaines specializes in speaking to the specific cultural issues faced by African Americans when accessing or providing psychological services. When she’s not helping clients or managing her business, Dr. Gaines enjoys reading, traveling, and most of all, being a soccer mom and dedicated fan of her daughter’s team. 

In Memoriam
Lavinia Ruckes-Ekong
December 7, 1961 – February 25, 2019

Dr. Lavinia Ekong was a graduate of the Michigan School of Psychology doctoral program (’12), Certified Imago Relationship Therapist, and a member of the Executive Board of Imago Therapy of Michigan. After obtaining her degree Dr. Ekong often returned to MSP to share her knowledge and experience with students. She joined the adjunct faculty in 2017, facilitated clinical training for masters and doctoral students on Imago Therapy, and taught continuing education workshops. Her clinical practice at Ekong Counseling Center focused on helping clients develop healthy intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships using Imago Relationship Therapy.