Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Specter of Death

Leslie and her husband Harvey are seated in my office. Leslie is my patient. She asked if she could bring her husband into a session. Although this is not my usual practice, I did agree. Harvey was diagnosed with lung cancer a year ago. He’s undergone surgery and chemotherapy and his doctors are cautiously optimistic. Leslie, however, is complaining that he has become more distanced, less talkative, less interested in engaging with her.

Although Leslie doesn’t know it, I, too, have lived with a husband, George, who had cancer and eventually died of it. I know that the treatments take a huge toll, and have wondered with Leslie if Harvey’s  distance is a preoccupation with his own health and his fears about his mortality. Leslie feels there is more. So today they sit in my office.

Leslie pulls at her fingers, fidgets in the chair. Harvey sits looking rather glum. He’s a good-looking man in his fifties who doesn’t look ravaged by disease.

“How do you feel being here today, Harvey?” I begin.

He shrugs. “I’m not exactly sure why I’m here,” he responds.

“Can you tell him why you wanted him to come to a session, Leslie?”

“You just seem so far away,” she says almost desperately. “You won’t talk to me. When you’re home all you do is sit in a chair and watch TV.”

“I’ve been sick. I just went back to work. I’m tired.”

“No, it’s more than that; it has to be,” Leslie counters. “You were always so loving, so related, so involved with me and the children. It’s like you’ve become another person.”

There’s an irony to my seeing this couple today. On my desk behind them, sits twenty boxed copies of my book, Love and Loss in Life and in Treatment, that has just come out. I haven’t opened the box yet. The book is a memorial to George, and I have thought it would be too emotional for me to open it in my office. Best to take it home; best not to have another patient to see. George’s illness was long and hard and although there were times he was very ill, he remained engaged with me through the end. I always felt his love.

The session continues. Leslie prods. Harvey resists. I mediate. And then I have a thought, perhaps because the box of books is in my line of sight.

“Are you afraid you’re doing to die?” I ask Harvey.

He startles. Leslie gasps. He looks towards her, concerned. “We don’t talk about that,” he says.

“You don’t talk about that?” I exclaim. “Neither of you have ever spoken about your fears of Harvey dying?”

They both shake their heads.

“Leslie you talk about it here all the time,” I say, the inflection in my voice continuing to show my surprise.

“I didn’t want to upset him,” she says meekly.

“I imagine, Harvey, it’s hard to talk about anything when the thing that’s uppermost in your mind is what you don’t talk about,” I say softly.

“Yes, that’s true. But there’s more,” he adds.

“I always knew there was more,” Leslie says, eagerly looking at her husband.

“I want to prepare, Leslie. I figured if I start withdrawing from her now, if I do die, it won’t be as hard for her when I’m gone.”

Much to my surprise I tear up. And I make a surprising snap decision. “Leslie doesn’t know this, but my husband died of cancer. My husband was much older than me so I always knew I would be a widow. But you can do two things with that awareness, you can pull away as you’ve been doing, or you can use it as an opportunity to come together, to have every moment count, to love each other with every fiber of your being. And, after all, we do never know what life will bring. You might outlive, Leslie, Harvey and then you’d have wasted all these years.”

Leslie is crying. “Please come back to me,” she says beseechingly. “I love you so much. You’re here now. I want you to be with me now!”

Harvey is also crying. “I’ll try,” he says, as he reaches towards his wife.


Unknown said...

Linda, this is a wonderful example of appropriate self-disclosure that is perfect to discuss with my counseling class. I'm sharing it with them.

I'm absolutely treasuring your book. I'm both wanting to rush through it, because I don't want to stop reading, but I'm also wanting to reflect on what you've written. It's like reading a novel and a book on what psychotherapy and psychoanalysis is about all at the same time. I think your book will be a classic in the line of Yalom's writings.


Linda Sherby PH.D., ABPP said...

Thank you so much, John. I greatly appreciate all your positive feedback! Several people have told me they were sorry to see my book come to an end. I consider it a great compliment that I was able to tap into other's emotional experience by revealing my own. Thanks again.

Amanda Christine Cox said...

By way of contrast, a friend of my husbands lost his 5 year battle with cancer and stayed with his wife and family right til the end, whereas my dad who was on a downward spiral of mental illness and self destruction really distanced himself from us. I felt like I'd lost my dad years before he actually died. We talk about bereavement in our sessions but I have no idea if my therapist has experienced that himself, and am too scared to ask.

Linda Sherby PH.D., ABPP said...

Perhaps it would be a good idea to talk with your therapist about why you're afraid to ask if he's experienced a close death and why it matters to you whether he has.

This may be self-serving, but you might like to read my book, Love and Loss in Life and in Treatment.