For those of you who read my book, you might remember Paula. She’s the depressed widow I treat during the winters when she leaves her home in Park Slope, Brooklyn to spend time in Florida. Depression has been with Paula most of her life; her husband’s death only made it worse. She hates leaving her home in Brooklyn, even for the winters, venturing south only at the insistence of her daughter, Karen, who, as Paula says, probably had enough of her, and sends her off to her other daughter in Florida. But Karen is now moving to Los Angeles. The plan is for Paula to return north this spring, to put her house on the market and to make a permanent move to south Florida.
“Maybe I shouldn’t,” Paula continues, still weeping. “Maybe I should just stay there by myself. I’ll just have to force myself to get out more, to make friends. I know I’m not very good at that, but I could try,” she says plaintively. “I know that’s not what my daughters want, but it’s my life. I get to do what I want.”
“It is indeed your life, Paula. This is a huge decision for you either way. But I’m glad to hear you say you get to decide for yourself what you want to do.”
“But I can’t. I couldn’t not do what my daughters want. They’d worry about me. I don’t want them to worry about me.”
“I wonder if that’s true, Paula. I suspect you’d kind of like your daughters to worry more about you.”
“That wouldn’t be nice.”
I sigh inwardly. Paula and I have covered this ground more times than I care to remember. “You don’t have to be nice all the time, Paula. And you don’t have to have only good thoughts and good feelings.”
“I guess.” She pauses. “But do you think it’s practical? Do you think I could stay in Brooklyn by myself?”
I smile. “So now you’re going to ask me rather than your daughters what you should do. As you said, you’re an adult. You can make your own decisions. You need to weigh how it would feel to stay in Brooklyn without one of your daughters, as opposed to how it will feel to sell your home.”
“I can’t. I can’t do either one.”
Sadness washes over me. Although Paula’s dependency, indecision and complaints often make working with her difficult for me, this time I feel Paula’s dilemma on a deeply personal level. I remember the tremendous pain I felt about leaving my Michigan home and relocating to south Florida. When my husband’s health tipped the scale in the direction of moving, I remember the questions I asked myself over and over: “How will I walk out of this house for the last time? How can I be making a decision that causes me such intolerable pain?”
Remembering, I say, “With the exception of your husband’s death, leaving your home may well be the most painful loss you’ve ever experienced. It’s nothing to make light of. Home represents your and Robert’s relationship. Home represents a place of safety and security. It’s “home.” Whether home will be enough without Robert or your daughter, no one can decide but you. You often feel very alone. I don’t know if that aloneness will feel intolerable once Karen has moved. That’s something you’ll have to decide. But if you do decide to move, don’t minimize the pain you’ll feel and don’t get angry with yourself for feeling it.”
“I want Robert,” she says beseechingly. “I want Robert to be here and help me.”
“I understand, Paula. I wish he could be here for you, but unfortunately that’s not possible.”
“I hate it when you say that. I know it’s true, of course, but I still hate it.”
“I know, Paula. It feels too real when I say it. But it is important for you to hold onto that reality because when you don’t, you’re surprised again and again that he’s dead and it’s like having to begin mourning for him all over again. And right now you have a huge decision to make and you need to make it knowing that Robert isn’t around to help you.”
i am a little surprised that you didn't proffer your personal experience of Florida as the sunshine state. Sunshine is a strong natural benefit to those of us with deep and intransigent depressions. The natural negative ion bath at the shore proper is a secondary help.
Does she have appearances by her late husband in her dreams or daytime fantasies? Does he converse with him in dreams if so? My point there is that she may not be as alone as your dyad believes in that she has her animus and perhaps her husband in her dreams sometimes.
First, sunshine is not a balm for someone as depressed as my patient. Second, to offer it as a solution would feel to me extremely minimizing of her pain.
Third, although I agree that being able to find relief from one's grief necessitates being able to take memories and images of the deceased person with you in your mind to offer comfort and solace, unfortunately, because at some level my patient has not totally accepted the reality of her husband's death, these images increase rather than decrease her pain.
Hi Linda, This is an outstanding blog! thank you for publishing it.
Thanks, Ruth. I appreciate your taking the time to give me your feedback.
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