The Meaning and Management of Endings

By Isca Salzberger-Wittenberg | Published in The Journal of Educational Therapy Volume 2, Number 3, May 1989.

The subject of endings is rarely discussed, probably because it evokes the most painful emotions. Endings recall separation from those who are dear to us; they conjure up the passing away of relatives and friends and the notion of our own death. Most people spend a lifetime trying to avoid facing the feelings of grief which arise from endings, but we are bound to face them sooner or later.

Any loss evokes feelings connected with earlier losses and the threat of future ones. We are here concerned with the ending of relationships between children and teachers, primarily within the one-to-one situation, but I shall also say something about the classroom. Endings mean change, the loss of something familiar. We may think that leaving a teacher or leaving school are not in themselves major events, but they do arouse far stronger and deeper feelings than we believe. As well as loss of a present relationship, this stirs up emotions belonging to earlier times in the individual’s life: emotions first experienced in infancy, when we are all dependent on others.

Freud has said that in the unconscious nothing is ever completely lost. Experiences and the phantasies attached to them remain in the depths of the mind, and influence the way we perceive and interpret later situations which resemble previous ones. Thus the very first experiences and relationships remain as patterns which we transfer to later ones; from mother and father to teacher and headmaster, from siblings to peers, from the family to bigger groups and institutions. This is why we speak of transference.

I will therefore explore the meaning of endings and how they can be managed by looking first at the earliest losses and how they are managed, for this deeply influences the way we negotiate relinquishments later in life. The earliest loss occurs at birth; we lose the safety of the intra-uterine life and the link to mother provided by the umbilical cord. When this is cut there is an end to in-oneness; there is separateness, and all that involves. The human infant is born without the motor ability to help himself; he cannot reach the source of food, comfort and life-sustaining warmth, protecting himself against danger. He is utterly dependent on another to come to him, to provide for his needs and hold him in safety. This most dramatic ending/beginning, occurring in a state of helplessness, leaves in all of us a deep fear of falling, disintegrating, being lost, helpless and overwhelmed by terror in the face of the new and unknown. The infant deals with the loss of security by the omnipotent phantasy of being in one with the mother, and the “good-enough mother”, as Winnicott calls her, confirms this phantasy by fitting in almost perfectly to his need. Her preoccupation and love for the baby make her available to pick him up, hold him, feed him, comfort him, at first almost as soon as he shows signs of need or distress. Without this experience of continuity the ending of intra-uterine life cannot be tolerated, and feels life-threatening. Rene Spitz (1974) studied infants in baby homes which provided no continuity of attention from a single care-taker. He found that they fell into such despair that they literally gave up and died. In the very depth of the mind ending evokes fear of unconnectedness and utter helplessness, loss of hope of survival in the face of a terrifying unknown. How do we survive and come to feel that there is a lifeline to sustain us? We gradually come to feel safe if there is reliable, attentive mothering which exposes us only very briefly to terrifying aloneness; if we take in, alongside physical nourishment, a mental image of a life-giving and life-sustaining maternal object. This good experience lays the foundation. But there is another factor, for there will always be gaps, moments of separateness, even from the very beginning of life. We fill these spaces by our mental life, by phantasy, later by what we call imagination, and later still by conscious thoughts about the absent one. The human infant’s physical helplessness is matched by his capacity for making mental links to bridge the space between. When the mother is absent, the very young infant hallucinates the breast, using his mouthing movements to feel that he is still in touch with mother. Later he may turn to substitutes like the thumb or a blanket to suck, and thus go on feeling that comfort and food are at hand.

Infants who have had good experiences at first, but then suffer an early separation or too early a severe disappointment, may become autistic. Such children appear to be unconnected to their environment and the people around them. We feel them to be unreachable, they seem to live in a shell. If we try to break through this shell, perhaps by taking away the object in their hand, they will fall into a state of rage or terror.

This inanimate object acts as a sort of survival kit which keeps at bay the dreaded experience of being out of touch and lost. Frances Tustin describes the autistic child’s manipulation of objects (or parts of his body) as a way of creating a continual sensual experience to cut out the terror of the ‘not me’, of separateness. She writes: “It has become clear to me that a crucial factor in the precipitation of psychogenic autism was the infant’s realisation that the nipple of the breast (or teat of the bottle) was not part of the mouth but separate from it, and could be gone. This had been enraging and terrifying.” (Tustin, 1981).

Winnicott (1968) wrote:

“This loss was experienced as a loss of part of his body, not as the loss of the mother and her breast.” Tustin states further: “This loss occurs at a stage in which the baby has as yet no mental construct of himself and the other.”

In my view, the autistic experience shows us that endings mean: a tremendous fear of falling into a gap, of being unable to reach the object that can save us from disaster. At times all of us, when overcome by hopelessness, become mindless and cling merely to some physical comforter. And whenever we come to the end of our knowledge we tend to reach for our pet theories, going over the same ground again and again, turning explanations around in our minds like autistic objects in order to feel secure.

Other children deal with endings in less extreme ways. They may persuade themselves that they are in control of others, or that they possess everything they need. This can become a more permanent feature if mothering has been unreliable, or if the child cannot tolerate the frustration of separateness and loss. They tell themselves: “I can manage on my own”, “I don’t need anyone”, “I know everything”. This defence leads to severe learning difficulties; the child cannot bear not to know, because this implies being back in a state of infantile mental and emotional helplessness. This denial of need and dependence closes him to learning, to new experiences, for learning requires us to acknowledge a state of not knowing, of being at a loss and having to find out.

Or the child may feel he has the other person at his beck and call, like a genie. One of my first analytic patients was a girl of ten, whom I shall call Marion. Among her symptoms was a fear of death and terrible tantrums whenever she was frustrated. She told me that she would not use my toys, she was not a child. However, she did paint, and her paintings expressed the phantasy that I was a fairy god-mother whose task was to fulfil her every wish. Then, having made her into a bride, I was to be the bride-groom who gave her unlimited attention and admiration. We were never to be apart. Her control over others, her inability to accept separateness and distance, showed in her school work. Her phantasied omnipotence showed itself in her spelling; poetry was spelt “powatry”. Mathematics was rejected because it concretely represented counting different members of the family as separate units. In her own books, which she sometimes brought to her sessions, all the answers came to 1, 7, or 8. Number one clearly represented herself; she always had to be the only one. Seven and eight stood for her demands that I attend to her seven or eight days a week – continually. When I told her about the coming holidays she told me about the fire-drill at school, implying that talk of the holiday was just a test which she need not take seriously because, like a fire, it was unlikely to really happen. When I told her the date she wrote “33rd of July”, a non-existent date, as I must not leave her. She kept losing the paper on which I had written the date. Finally, when the awful truth struck that I really meant to go away, she wrote below the holiday chart I had made for her: “This is the END” in big, big letters and underlined it twice. Session after session was spent covering pages with: “This is the end”. Then she drew a girl walking away from a house in the distance. Then she played in the sand tray, showing me a river too big to cross. Clearly she felt the holiday was a divide that could not be bridged. In a later session the land turned into a muddy swamp, and eventually a desert. For many sessions after this she stood looking out of the window, quite withdrawn from me. She clearly felt abandoned to feelings of complete emptiness, starvation and death.

In Marion’s case I had no reason to believe that she had not had a reliable mother who came when needed and did not leave her unnecessarily frustrated or distressed for too long. Such satisfactory mothering usually leads to the introjection of a good, holding, feeding, life-giving lap and breast, which gradually become part of the child’s inner equipment. This allows him to tolerate initially very brief, but gradually extending, periods of being alone. He builds up an inner mental image of connectedness with a comforting mother whose voice and touch can be recalled even in her absence, and to trust that she will return. We can readily understand that children who have not had such maternal provision are distrustful, tending to experience all adults as unreliable and to feel rejected at every ending, totally dropped and lost. Probably such children form a large part of your caseload and any interruption, even the end of the hour, confirms to them that you are cruel, uncaring and purposefully hurtful. Feelings of anger and despair may be shown in their behaviour and play. You need to understand these feelings, tolerate and verbalise them to convey that you are aware what the end means. Or that they may need to show that they are in control by packing up early or not leaving on time. Or they may deal with the pain and helplessness by expressing feelings of: “I don’t care, I don’t like you or need you anyway”. But even where there has been good mothering, any ending may be felt as intolerable, as it did with Marion. The problem in her case was that her closeness to her mother in her early days had meant that she was the breast or else had it fully under her control. She had a great intolerance of frustration, which made her feel so enraged at parting that the goodness of what had been given was attacked, smashed, turned into urine and stools, until she felt there was nothing good left inside. She feared that her greed had so drained me that I had turned into a desert, unable to give her more, and hence would not return. Her history as a baby was in fact one of blissful happiness at the breast, but she needed constant attention and carrying about whenever she was awake. When she was weaned at eight months she became an angry child and turned away from mother to father. Her eating difficulties became more and more pronounced, reaching their height at eighteen months, when she would let herself be fed only by someone other than her mother, and refused everything but bacon and bananas. She showed such willpower, holding food she did not want in her mouth for an hour or more, that her parents eventually gave up the useless battle. She continued to demand constant attention.

Melanie Klein stated that weaning and the way it is dealt with lays the foundation for our ability to negotiate loss in later life. Whether the infant is able to mourn the loss of the breast rather than turn away from it in anger to another object, becoming omnipotent like Marion, but retaining in the depths of the personality a fear of an end equated with death – all this depends on endowment, i.e. the ability to love and forgive the person who frustrates, as well as on the environmental provision. This would explain why some children manage relatively well despite considerable deprivation while others, though having had good enough mothering, explode whenever they are put down, making it the end. Some such children do not return for therapy after a holiday and turn to someone else in the vain hope of finding an ideal partner who will never leave them. On the other hand, some children have had their hopes shattered so often, have had so many repeated losses, that they do not risk involving themselves deeply in any relationship for fear of further hurt and disappointment. These children are at bottom depressed, although they may appear superficially to engage readily with others.

Much depends on the way adults handle endings. If we are fully aware of the transference, the fact that feelings from earlier relationships attach themselves to any person on whom one is in some way dependent, then the responsibility this places on the teacher/therapist to respect the vulnerability of the children in our care becomes evident. We are at risk of becoming yet another unreliable adult, undermining hope that someone exists who can be relied on. It is this which makes it so essential to be on time, not to cancel sessions except in a real emergency or to end suddenly; for not only is the past evoked by the present, but the new experience confirms or allays the worst fears.

All this applies, of course, to groups as well as individuals, adults as well as children. Take any class of any age group and you will notice how being in a learning situation evokes a childlike relationship with the teacher. I will give a few examples of how a group of adult students reacted to my temporarily leaving them in charge of another teacher.

“Oh dear, we’ll have to start from the beginning again, go back to all that feeling of chaos.” “We’ve got used to you now, it feels safe.” “When you go away the link gets broken.” “You hold the memory of the group.”

We can see in these remarks the loss of security, the feelings of helplessness and chaos, at the loss of the person whose mind is felt to hold the disparate parts of the group and the different parts of the individual personality together. The teacher’s disappearance threatens to break this safety net. When the whole staff of a school goes away and the building is closed down, there may be even more anxiety stirred up. The whole institution is now unavailable, evoking fears that the fabric of home, family, parents and siblings could disappear, leaving the child lost in the big, wide world without support. Although adherence to the restrictions and demands may be resented, their absence may leave the child, and the child within the adult, bewildered and afraid of the freedom which exposes him to facing the chaos and emptiness of his inner world. In the feelings expressed by my group of adults when I temporarily left them, there was anger as well as anxiety.

“You are deserting us.” “You don’t seem to care about us, you just pick us up and put us down when you feel like it.” “I’m not going to attend while you’re away.”

These comments come loud and clear in verbal form, as they might also do with an older child. But when communication comes in the form of play it can be harder to understand and need some elucidation. Ronnie, aged eight, presented me with a picture which had merely some green marks in the right-hand corner; the rest of the page was blank. It took some questioning and quite a lot of previous experience with him, as well as some risk taking on my part, to say that perhaps the blank on the left was what he felt when I did not see him during the week, that he then felt left with a big space, with nothing, just a blank. Ronnie said nothing but added one more bit of green on the right-hand side. I dared to say that now I had spoken I had added a bit more colour to his life, a feeling that I was on the right together with him. Our job is to try to understand the child’s communication, whether it come in words or pictures or actions. Children often express their feelings in very concrete ways, actually throwing or smashing objects or rushing about. It is interesting that we call the ending of the school term “breaking up”, implying disintegration, whether through a passive falling apart or through wilful destructiveness. While some children react to the end of term by becoming withdrawn and depressed while others, unable to contain within their minds depression and anger at loss, enact the breaking up in uncontrolled behaviour, breaking equipment, tearing up books, smearing over their pictures, furniture and walls. As well as feeling deserted, anger also arises from jealousy of those who are felt to have the teacher’s attention; so vandalism may be a way of saying: “If I can’t have things, I’ll make sure no one else can have them.” (Spoiling may also have envy of the teacher’s knowledge at its roots). A child who has been destructive may not only be afraid of coming back but takes away in his mind the image of a damaged person and place. Thus, he is left with a bad internal situation without an internal holding and sustaining presence. Of course, some children make you feel they are only too glad you’ll be on holiday. They are going to have a wonderfully exciting time and get their wishes fulfilled, something much better than you can provide. “I am going to have a big bike”; “I’ll be buying lots and lots of sweets”; or “You don’t know what I am going to do”. These statements are a rather transparent coverup for depressive feelings of being left empty and poor. They are intended to make teacher or therapist feel left out, excluded, miserable and empty handed. This shows us what the dreaded, intolerable emotions are which they can’t bear to feel, and so make us experience. They often successfully get under our skin, particularly when these emotions are expressed in action, or in silences, eg. when the child does not pay attention, forgets appointments or treats us like rubbish. This may make us feel we are unimportant, forgotten, useless, unworthy of attention. All these emotions which the child finds too hard to bear are projected into us, and we are made to feel them. Indeed I believe that in order to understand them fully we need to experience them, for it is only then that we can fully understand what the ending means to the child, and reflect the depth of his feelings back to him by our behaviour or by what we say. Without such an emotional “take” the work remains purely intellectual guesswork, or is at best superficial, not really in tune with the strength of the emotional experience.

To return to ten-year-old Marion, who wrote: “This is the END” before the summer holiday: after the holiday she sat week after week with her back to me, reading a comic. All I could see was a figure feeding herself sweets, chocolate cigarettes and long sticks of liquorice, and rocking herself at times. I felt more and more ignored, excluded and utterly useless. Nothing I said seemed to make the slightest impression. It was hard to restrain myself from plying her with questions, taking some action to relieve my frustration, or escaping to other thoughts or sleep. But these counter-transference experiences helped me to understand what it was like to be left out, ignored, rejected and brimful of angry frustration. It took a long time of having to bear these feelings, and putting across to her that I thought she wanted me to have a dose of what she felt I had done to her, but in time my understanding of how awful the holiday had been for her did seem to get across and alleviate some of her hatred and rejection. One’s immediate response is, of course, to react rather than to tolerate the projected feelings, but we do have to contain them, and when we can attach meaning to them, they become more bearable. So the pain is modulated, and this enables the child to feel that it can be lived through, felt and thought about. On the other hand, when children behave dangerously, it is important to consider whether they are communicating: “If you don’t hold onto me, I’ll die” or “Your leaving is killing me”, wanting to test one’s concern and asking us to understand and ensure their survival by handing them over to some other responsible person. The child may also be in real danger because he is dealing with intolerable feelings of littleness and exclusion by developing a delusional conviction of being a grownup, or a baby inside his mother. I once had a five-year-old patient whose phantasy of getting into me and being a baby in the womb made her throw herself into the swimming pool when the class was taken to their first swimming lesson. The attendant had to fish her out.

The end of term, the end of the year, may seem to the teacher an insignificant ending, but as we have seen anxieties are stirred up by any endings because of earlier losses. A temporary break needs many weeks of preparation, a final ending of an ongoing, well established relationship needs many months of preparation. To explain how long this takes we must think again about mourning. As Freud pointed out, this occurs not only in bereavement, but accompanies all experiences of loss, whether a relationship to a person, the loss of a limb, a country, babyhood, childhood, the familiar school building and teacher or of peers. A child moving from one form to another was heard to say: “I loved my dear room, I’ll miss it”. The mental states associated with mourning occur roughly in the following sequence:

  1. Shock disbelief, denial. “This can’t be real.” Remember Marion, who did not believe at first, I really meant to have a holiday; it was make believe, like the fire drill. When I kept reminding her she drew a girl whose head was bent under a shock of hair, to indicate the heavy shock she had sustained by the news which was too painful at first to take.
  2. Anger always follows a loss, anger with the person for leaving one abandoned, deserted and alone to face external and internal dangers.
  3. Guilt at what one should have done differently, at not doing enough, at being too difficult, wasting time, being exhausting.
  4. Despair, arising from guilt, that it is or may be now too late to make reparation.
  5. Grief at losing the relationship forever.
  6. Sadness that something of value is coming to an end and pining for what is lost.

Some of these phases of mourning may overlap or interchange. They regularly occur at weaning from the breast or bottle, from the first significant relationship. The emotions are extremely painful, and time is needed to struggle, and the support of others to make them bearable. There is a danger of getting stuck in any of these states of mind. One may go on denying loss by the attitude: “I don’t miss anyone or anything. I can manage by myself; my thumb, my own body, my own mind are what really provide for me.” This is the mental state of omnipotence, which is such a barrier to being dependent enough to learn. Anger leads to destruction of what has been given or of what has been learned, turning away from the disappointing relationship and killing it off mentally. On the other hand one may idealise the lost relationship to preserve it from one’s anger; then the new teacher is likely to be unacceptable. A bad ending interferes with a new beginning. Any ending arouses frustration and anger; the question is whether these are so strong as to obliterate the good gained, or whether in time the good feelings of appreciation and gratitude will prevail and can be taken forward into the new relationship.

Whether we can mourn successfully depends to a great extent on what help we are given to bear the painful feelings aroused by loss; the support given to adults by relatives and friends, and that given to children by teachers and the family. But again, the individual’s primary experiences in infancy lay the foundation for his own ability to overcome loss and to make use of others who can offer help. Some teachers, like some mothers, enable the child to deal with the shock of the ending by allowing it plenty of time and making it a gradual process. But just as some mothers cannot stand the baby’s distress and put it out of earshot, so some teachers put the child’s distress out of mind, or else deal harshly with his behaviour, not understanding that it arises from disappointment. In many adults endings arouse their own infantile, undigested feelings of deprivation, pain and frustration, so they withdraw leaving the infant, the child, the adult who is mourning to cope alone. This is bound to make the infant or child feel more rejected and anxious that the adult is unable or unwilling to care for him and doesn’t want such nasty feelings. Some mothers and some teachers, unable to bear sadness, try to jolly the grieving person along, to get him out of his painful state by providing ready substitutes. All this conveys is that such feelings are unbearable; the grieving baby is not helped to attach meaning to his feelings and cannot work them through. At later times of loss, the individual will then not have had the experience of anger not leading to permanent hurt, of sadness being tolerable and forming a basis for keeping alive the memory of the good missing person. The beautiful thing is at the time of weaning, of saying goodbye to a relationship, unlike bereavement, there is a possibility and time to check the reality against the frightening phantasies of being damaging, unloved. These anxieties can be allayed to a considerable extent while there is still an ongoing relationship. If the teacher can allow the anger to be expressed in his presence, this enables the child to see that the teacher can survive such an onslaught and remain caring despite it. The phantasies of a nasty, uncaring or damaged teacher can be tested against the reality. The facts can then be put against the anxieties that are bound to arise during the teacher’s temporary or permanent absence. If enough time is given for this to be worked through, this allows more positive and reparative feelings to emerge while there is still an ongoing relationship. This makes it possible to part on better terms, and for the child to carry away with him an inner picture of a relationship which has withstood battles and can be restored. Teachers often find it just as hard to accept expressions of sadness and affection as they do more hostile feelings.

It is not only the child who sustains a loss. The teacher too needs to be able to face the loss of this particular relationship, in which so much of his time and effort has been invested. Endings make us ask ourselves what we have achieved and where we have failed. Do we feel guilty at wanting to get rid of the child because s/he has not made progress? Or at not having tried harder or been flexible enough to find a way to establish a good relationship or facilitate learning? When we are the ones to decide on ending we are also likely to feel guilty, knowing that we cause pain, so we deny that our leaving matters and is painful for the child. We also feel concerned as to how the child will fare without us. Will he maintain progress, will all be lost? Feelings no doubt shared by the child, but not his alone. Perhaps we feel anger that not more has been achieved, and we tend to blame the parents. There may be anger because just as there is progress and a more satisfactory relationship has been achieved, it comes to an end. We might wish to hold onto this relationship rather than have to start again with another difficult case or a new group of children. There is also real sadness at parting from a child or a class to whom we may have become attached. I believe there cannot be a good parting unless both partners in the relationship can acknowledge their loss and sadness. These matters are barely thought about, and practically never carried through by teachers. Instead, there is denial that a relationship is ending, collusion with absenteeism, and once exams are over everyone behaves as if the term has really come to an end, and relationships fizzle out. Painful feelings are literally run away from by engaging in boisterous activities like sports, or drowned by laughter, food and drink at leaving parties. Not that there is not a place for fun to celebrate that one has managed to come through the year and has hopefully achieved something of value. Coming together as a group or as a whole institution reassures us against the fear of dissolution, of disintegration, and helps everyone to hold on to a picture of togetherness, a unity to be remembered.

If the groundwork of mourning has been accomplished we can carry away inside ourselves the best aspects of what has been learned from the relationship, and this forms the basis of being ready for further development. Such endings also provide a stimulus to use what has been given for further endeavour. Endings are essential if we are to make progress. Provided the frustration and anger are not in the long run greater than love and appreciation, the end, whether in babyhood or adulthood, stimulates us to stretch our physical and mental muscles to overcome feelings of helplessness and inadequacy. Gratitude for what we have been given, and a wish to keep an inner connectedness with the person who has been externally lost lead us to hold what we have learned, hand it on to others, and this becomes a mainspring for growth and creative endeavour.

  • Spitz, R. (1974) “Anaclytic Depression” in “The Competent Infant”, Ed. Joseph L. Tavistock Publications.
  • Tustin, F. (1981) “Autistic States in Children”. Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • Winnicott, D.W. (1968) “Collected Papers”, Tavistock Publications