Inside/Outside

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Specter of Death as Ever-Present



I am returning in this blog to Leslie and Harvey, the couple who was dealing with Harvey’s diagnosis of lung cancer. They had never spoken about their fears of Harvey dying, leading to his pulling away in order to protect her from the pain of his possible death.

Before continuing, however, I would like to clarify that just as in my book, Love and Loss, most of the patients in my blogs are composites of individuals I have worked with over the years, although I do try to remain true to the patient or idea I am presenting. Similarly, the dialogue, which I use extensively to bring the patient/therapist relationship to life, flows from my mind, not from verbatim transcripts. 

I return now to the couple. Although Leslie is my patient, Harvey has asked to come in for another joint session, a request his wife Leslie is more than happy to accommodate.

“I appreciate you agreeing to see me, to see us again,” Harvey says, smiling a bit as he switches the “me” to “us.” “I guess you’d call that a Freudian slip, ‘cause I do think this session is more for me than for Leslie.” He looks pensive. “I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said last time I was here, how the awareness of death can provide an opportunity for greater closeness, for a chance to live life to the fullest.”

I nod.

“It’s never been like that for me. I mean not only since I’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer, but forever. I’ve always been terrified of loss, of death.”

“Really?” Leslie says, clearly surprised. “I never knew that.”




“I’m not sure I really knew it either until that last session. But then I realized it’s always been this way, even as a kid. I’d like go to the drug store to get some candy, there was this one guy behind the counter who was always nice to us kids, and I’d leave and wonder what would happen if I never saw him again and how terrible that would be. Or if one of my kids got sick, even like a cold or something, I’d wonder how I’d survive if they died, like I didn’t think I would survive. And then when I got sick, it’s like, wow! I’m going to lose everyone, everything, how horrible is that?”

The session is suffused with a heavy sadness.

“Harvey,” I begin tentatively, aware that he is not strictly my patient, “Hasn’t Leslie told me that your father died of cancer when you were quite young?”

“Yeah. I was seven. It was terrible. My mother was a wreck, depressed – not that I blame her – and us kids were pretty much left to fend for ourselves. I don’t know what we would have done without my grandmother, my father’s mother, although she wasn’t in such great shape either.”

“So your whole childhood became filled with sadness and loss and death.”

“Yeah, and my dog died right about then too.”

“I’m so sorry, Harvey. What a lot for a little boy to bear. You lost everyone who was dear to you, everyone who you needed to depend on, to rely on. And, not surprisingly, it’s still a sadness you carry with you.”

“But I guess that’s what I’ve been thinking about. Even though I’d constantly have these thoughts about loss or death almost whenever I met someone, even if they weren’t someone close to me, I’m not sure I felt the sadness.”

I look at him quizzically. “You certainly seem to be feeling the sadness now, right here in this room.”

“Yes, I definitely feel it now and I’ve been feeling it more, but I realize that I’ve protected myself from those feelings my whole life. I mean even though I really, really love Leslie and my kids and even though I think I’ve been a loving husband and father…”

“You have been!” Leslie interjects.

“But not completely,” Harvey continues, sadly shaking his head. “I think I’ve always kept a piece of myself back. And I don’t want to stay at this place. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and feel that I’ve cheated myself and the people I’ve loved because I haven’t been able to totally let myself go, let myself love to the fullest and get the very most out of life.”

Leslie is crying. “I’m so sorry, Harvey. I’m so sorry I didn’t know.”

“I didn’t know myself, Leslie, so it’s hardly your fault.”

Tears fill my eyes, as I think of the good-fortune of my intensely loving relationship with my husband and, of course, the pain of his loss.  

I’m not sure where Harvey will go from here, but he’s clearly taken a big step towards greater love and connection.

No comments: