“This hasn’t been a good week,” Harriet says as she walks toward my office. “My daughter-in-law was in an accident and she’s in the hospital,” she continues once seated across from me in my sage chair. “She’s all right, but my son called me and he was very upset. I think he was upset with me, too. I tried to make him feel better. I told him she was all right and even though it was an upsetting experience, she’d get over it. I don’t think he found that helpful.”
This is a familiar place for Harriet, attempting to gloss over feelings, both her own and others. Her early life was filled with neglect and loss. Her defense has been to develop a thick wall around her, so that intense feelings cannot penetrate. From the outside she looks as though she has fully engaged in life, working, marrying, raising children. Inside, however, there is much barrenness, and a lack of truly connected relationships.
“What did you feel when your son told you about your daughter-in-law?” I ask.
“Well naturally I felt upset,” she says matter-of-factly.
“Did you really feel upset? And what exactly does upset mean?” I ask. I dislike the word “upset.” It can designate a variety of feelings and often avoids feelings altogether.
“Well I felt bad for my daughter-in-law. And for my son. But she’ll get over it. She’s young.”
“It sounds as though you really didn’t want to feel the fear both your daughter-in-law and son felt about how close she came to losing her life, how close they came to dealing with loss,” I say gently.
Harriet sits up straighter in her chair and crosses her arms. She is in defensive posture.
“But she didn’t die!” she exclaims.
I say nothing, but smile kindly at her.
She sighs. “You’re right, of course. But I still don’t get the point. What’s the point of letting yourself feel, when loss is the inevitable outcome.”
Much to my surprise, my eyes fill with tears. Harriet has touched on a very tender topic for me. My late husband was twenty-one years my senior. I always knew that he would die before me. I always knew that I would be a widow. I also knew that his death would be crushingly painful for me. But there was no doubt that I would chose him and our relationship for as long as I had him. I am a great believer in, “’Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” I wrote a book about it, about Love and Loss.
Harriet sees that my eyes are wet. She looks at me quizzically. “Why did that make you sad?” she asks, a little softer than usual.
“It’s true that all relationships end in one way or another. You certainly knew that very early in your life. But without daring to bring down your wall, without daring to really feel, to really love, it seems to me that you don’t fully live your life, and that’s the saddest possibility of all.”
Harriet is touched by my sadness. It makes a difference. It won’t be a magical cure, but it’s a step in the right direction.