“I came to see you because I thought you would understand,” Mara begins. “When my father insisted I see a therapist I did a lot of research. I was looking for someone who understood loss. I didn’t read your whole book, but I read enough to know you believe it’s important to stay connected to the person who died, that it can provide comfort. My father just doesn’t get it. As he would say he’s ‘moved on,’ and that I need to too.”
Thoughts and questions swirl through my mind: Who died? Mara seems so young. How old is she? She’s the first person who’s come to see me because of my book. I wonder if she’ll be anything like the other young woman who started treatment with me many years ago after reading a book I co-authored. That woman was fragile, defensive, and crying out for love.
Mara continues. “That’s all well and good for him. He can get another wife. I can’t get another mother. I know it’s been a long time since she died. But it’s not like I’ve stopped living. I did well in high school. I’m doing fine in college. The letters don’t interfere with my life.”
“The letters?” I ask.
“I’ve written my mother a letter every day since she died.”
“And when did she die?”
“Nine years ago, when I was twelve.”
Uh oh, I think. What I say is, “That must have been very hard.”
Mara’s eyes fill with tears. Her eyes are big and brown and bring to mind a deer which, in turn, makes me think of another young woman I saw many years ago who covered her terror with rage. Whenever I saw her I thought of a deer caught in the headlights.
“It was terrible. She died of breast cancer. She seemed to be getting better. And then she was suddenly dead,” Mara says shaking her head. “I cried for days and days. For weeks, really. I couldn’t go to school because I couldn’t stop crying, I mean like continually. I don’t know how I got the idea to write her letters, but I did. I wrote to her every day. And I still do. It helped me stop crying.”
“What do you do with the letters, Mara?”
“I keep them. I have boxes and boxes of them. Some are pretty short, others are longer. Sometimes I tell her about my day or a problem I’m having. But I end them all the same way. I tell her we’ll always be together.”
My stomach tightens. It wasn’t only Mara’s youth that made me think of those two other young women. Mara is another fragile doe, holding onto her deceased mother as a drowning person clutches a life vest.
“Can you tell me about your relationship with your mother, Mara? I ask.
She smiles, nodding. “We had a wonderful relationship. She loved me so much. She stopped working when I was born. She’d walk me to school, read me bedtime stories, kiss and hug me all the time. She was the perfect Mom.” She pauses. “Until she got sick.”
“When was that, Mara?”
“I was seven.”
“So she was sick for two years.”
“Yeah,” Mara says. Her doe eyes look downward. “It was really hard for her. She had to have a mastectomy and then chemo and radiation. It was awful.”
“You must have been really scared then. And pretty lonely too.”
“Yeah, I was really scared. I’m not sure I got it completely. I mean I knew she was really sick …”
“Did you worry about her dying?”
“Did you spend time with your Mom when she was sick?”
“Depends. Sometimes I’d crawl into bed with her and it would be like always. She’d stroke my hair and tell me everything would be OK. She’d tell me we’d be together always.” She pauses. “Other times, other times she’d just want to be left alone.”
The room fills with sadness. I feel sad for Mara’s loss and for my losses as well. Mara was a dependent child when she lost the person she was closest to in the world. Is there also anger at her mother’s desertion? No doubt. But she is nowhere near ready to deal with that.
Yes, I do believe that mourning is a process of taking in images and memories of the deceased which then provide a sense of connection with the person who is no more. But there’s more going on here for Mara. She is trying to keep her mother alive, compelled to make good on the promise that they be together always.
I suspect this will be a long, intense, and painful treatment.