“I never expected to be in a therapist’s office,” Darlene says, pulling at her fingers, glancing anxiously around the room. “I like all your windows. It makes your space feel larger, but still cozy.” She laughs self-consciously. “I’m an interior designer. Space matters to me. I’m sorry, I’m just rambling. I guess it’s hard to begin.”
“Take your time,” I say reassuringly. “It’s hard to open up to someone you’ve never met before.”
“It’s hard to open up to anyone. I’m 37 years old and except for my husband and my best friend I never talk to anyone about my sister. Or her death. That’s how I got to you. My friend sent me your blog about your husband’s death and I looked on your website and saw that you wrote a book about it and I thought, wow, here’s someone who can talk about her loss, maybe she can help me talk about mine.”
Darlene is talking rapidly now, as if in a rush to discharge years of pent up words. “I was seven when she died in a car accident. She was 16, the golden girl. Literally. She had beautiful long blond hair. And she was very smart, in her senior year of high school, with her pick of all the best colleges. Even her name was special – Lily, like the flower. Me, I kind of faded into the background – skinny, brown curly hair, a bit of a tomboy back then, okay in school but nothing exceptional. I was the tag along little sister, kind of a pest.
“Then she got killed. Of course my parents were devastated. Everyone was. I know now that my mother became majorly depressed, but then all I knew was that she vanished into her bedroom. I would hear her crying. I’d want to go in and comfort her but the door was always locked. Sometime I’d curl up on the floor outside the room and just wait for her to come out. My father threw himself into his work. He’d tell me not to bother my mother, not to upset her any more than she was already upset.”
I’m aware of the sadness I feel for Darlene as the lost, frightened child. I’m also aware of Darlene’s envious feelings towards her sister and wonder how that has affected her mourning.
She continues. “I don’t know how long it was before things became normal again. Except they weren’t normal. All the pictures of Lily disappeared. And no one could mention her name again. I never really understood how Lily died. I mean I knew she died in a car accident, but I don’t know who was driving or who was at fault or any of the particulars. I still don’t know. No one talks about her. It’s as though she had never existed. It’s weird.”
I shudder internally. I can’t imagine a more unhelpful way to mourn. And I can’t imagine the message Darlene received about death and mourning when a child goes from being loved and adored to being vanished and unspoken. There’s so much that Darlene needs to work on.
“How did you feel about Lily’s death?” I ask.
“Scared. I couldn’t understand how someone could be here one day and gone the next. It was frightening. I still feel that way. Death scares me. It’s one of the reasons I keep putting off having a child. My husband really wants children. But I worry. How would I cope if the child died?”
Darlene has stated her conscious concern about having a child. I wonder about possible unconscious reasons such as fear that her negative thoughts magically killed Lily and might similarly kill a child or that a child would become a competitor for her husband’s affection just as Lily was for her parent’s. But these are just speculations on my part and very far from where Darlene is at the moment.
She continues. “I still miss Lily. And I imagine losing a child would be way worse. Can I ask you something?”
“Is there something wrong with me that I still miss Lily after 30 years, that I still want to talk about her?”
Sadness fills me as I think about my two October losses - my husband now dead for seven years and my grandmother for 44. I carry them with me always, aware of the richness they brought to my life.
“Absolutely not,” I say. “Your parents never gave you or themselves the chance to mourn Lily, to tell stories about her, to remember her so that you could take Lily inside yourself so that it wouldn’t feel as though she had never existed. Taking the person who’s died inside us is a way to bring ourselves comfort, as well as a way to keep that person alive in the only way possible.”
Darlene’s eyes fill with tears. “You will work with me, won’t you?” she asks plaintively.
“It will be my privilege.”