“There’s just so much I have to do. Mom’s sister is coming from LA. Her best friend is coming from New York. I have to get food in the house. The house is such a mess, especially with Mom’s hospital bed in the living room. And there’s Melissa, getting her to school, to swimming, to play dates. I’ve tried to keep her life as normal as possible.”
These words rush from Chelsea the moment she enters my office. She continues:
“I’ve thought about asking Melissa’s father to take her for a while, but I don’t know, I don’t know how she’d feel about being sent away.”
“How do you feel, Chelsea? How do you feel about sending Melissa away? How do you feel about your Mom?” I ask, interrupting the flow.
“I don’t have time to feel. Except for stressed. I’m plenty stressed. There aren’t enough hours in the day. And I don’t want to leave Mom alone. I know the hospice nurse is there, but she’s a stranger. Mom doesn’t know her.”
“Chelsea, can you slow down a bit, can you …”
“I can’t slow down,” Chelsea interrupts. “I don’t have time as it is.”
I’m discomforted by Chelsea’s agitation. I know about anxiety taking over during times of impending loss, being propelled into action to escape the sick feeling in one’s stomach, hoping that doing something, anything will decrease feelings of helplessness. But it’s possible – in fact, helpful – to remain aware of the ever-present sadness. Chelsea is using her incessant activity in an attempt to rid herself of her feelings, an impossible task that only increases her anxiety – and mine.
“But you have time here, Chelsea,” I say. “You have time to feel. Your Mom is dying. She’s been living with you for several years. You’ve been her caretaker. You have feelings about losing your Mom.”
“Of course I have feelings,” she replies. “But what’s the point of dwelling on it. And her sister and best friend are coming. I can’t very well tell them not to.”
“Are you saying you’d rather they not come?”
“It doesn’t matter what I want. They want to come see Mom and they certainly have a right to.”
“But you can have a preference, a feeling about their coming, even though you understand their need to say good-bye to your Mom.”
“I guess I’d rather they not come. But they’re still coming.”
I feel myself becoming increasingly sad, although I don’t know why. Is Chelsea becoming more aware of her own sadness? Is she less aware and projecting her sadness onto me?
“Do you know why you’d rather they not come?” I ask.
“It’d be a lot less work.”
“Any other reason?” I persist.
Suddenly Chelsea is still. Her blue eyes fill with tears. “I know this is silly, but I’d rather have my Mom all to myself. I hadn’t thought of it, but I wonder if that’s why I considered sending Melissa to her father. I want it to be just Mom and me, just like it was when I was little. Oh God! I knew I didn’t want to go here! I can’t stand it! I’m not sure I’ll make it without Mom!” Tears stream down her cheeks. She buries her head in her hands, her body wracked with sobs.
My eyes well up. I remain silent, giving Chelsea her time.
After several minutes she reaches for the tissue box, blows her nose and wipes her eyes. “I’m sure I look like a mess.” She pauses. “But I actually feel calmer. Isn’t that weird?”
“No, Chelsea, not weird at all. You spend a lot of energy running in circles, trying to avoid your sadness. But when you stop and feel the sadness, although it’s very intense, you feel grounded again and you don’t have to be frantically worrying about things that don’t matter much at all.”
“But sometimes I’m not sure I will survive without Mommy,” she says in a whisper.
“I understand that’s your fear.”
“We were so close. It’s even been hard these last few months when she’s really not with me anymore. But I can pretend. I can pretend she knows who I am, that she hears me, that she responds to my voice. And maybe she does. But soon I won’t even have that. I don’t want to start crying again. I have to go soon anyway. Oh, I can begin to feel myself starting to rev up.”
“Good that you recognized that.”
“But better to be running around like a whirling dervish, than to be afraid I won’t survive without Mom.”
“Well, hopefully we can help you feel less like a helpless child who can’t survive without your mother. I’m sure you’ll miss her and grieve a lot. But you will survive.”