“I thought both your sons were coming with their families,” I say too quickly and concretely.
She sighs again. “It’s not the same.”
“You mean your husband Dave isn’t here?”
Her eyes fill with tears as she nods. “It’s been five years since he passed. Five years of being alone.”
“I understand that no one can replace Dave, but that doesn’t mean you’re alone.”
“It’s not the same,” she repeats.
I’m back in a familiar place with Jennifer. I do understand her feelings. As a widow myself, I know all too well that the holidays bring one’s sense of loss and loneliness to the foreground. But Jennifer’s inability to appreciate what she does have, to take in anything positive from anyone – including me – leaves me feeling angry and frustrated.
“I know it’s not the same, but I wonder how your sons would feel if they heard you discounting their love and caring.”
“They can’t understand. I know they lost their father, but they have their own families, their own lives.”
Feeling my anger rise, I wonder if I am feeling not only my own anger, but Jennifer’s as well. “Are you angry that your sons have their own lives, that they’re not here with you?”
“I’d prefer they were here. But boys don’t stay with their mothers. I have friends who are widows whose daughters live nearby. I get jealous whenever they bring up spending time with them. But me, I’m alone.”
“You just said you have friends,” I say, immediately aware that I am fruitlessly attempting to change Jennifer’s mind.
“Yes. But they’re just friends.”
I try to get beyond my frustration and my wish for Jennifer to be different and say, “Do you hear yourself reject anything positive you might receive from anyone: friends, your sons, me?”
“But it doesn’t feel positive.”
“What would be positive?” I ask.
“Having Dave back,” she says, crying.
From most patients, I would experience such a statement with great empathy. With Jennifer, I feel only anger. “I’m sure that’s true,” I say, trying to conceal my anger, “But you can’t have Dave back.”
“I hate when you say that!”
“Do you hate me?”
“No, I could never hate you. You’re trying to help me.”
“Are you saying you feel that you’re not allowed to hate me because I’m trying to help you?”
“But you might hate me even if you feel you shouldn’t.”
“You’re confusing me. Besides, I don’t know why we’re talking about this. I want to know how to be less alone.”
I’m ready to scream. I try to step back and understand what’s going on between us. What I feel is that Jennifer is determined to spit me out. Well, I think, maybe that’s a starting place.
“Jennifer,” I say, “I know that your life has been unbearably sad and painful since Dave’s death, but my experience of the immediate right here and now, of this session right at this moment, is that you reject anything I offer that might help you to feel less alone, like you’re spitting me out.”
“But you haven’t said anything to make me feel less alone.”
“If you’re saying I haven’t said anything that’s going to bring Dave back, that’s true. If you’re saying you’re unwilling to take in anything that might make you feel better unless it’s bringing Dave back, I’d say you’re holding out for the impossible. And if you are saying you’re going to reject anything that isn’t going to bring Dave back, I’d say that’s what we need to work on.” Am I being too harsh, I wonder? Is my frustration turning into hostility?
“I don’t know what you want from me,” Jennifer says plaintively.
Yes, I’m being too aggressive but Jennifer’s passivity and sense of entitlement is difficult for me to handle. I try to soften my tone. “Can you say what you’d like from me, Jennifer? Or what you think you might be able to do to help yourself to feel better.”
“I don’t know,” she laments. “I thought you were supposed to tell me that.”
“It’s so, so hard for you, Jennifer, to take in positives, to feel good about your sons coming, to feel pleased to have friends.”
“It’s not enough.”
“I understand they’re not Dave. But maybe you won’t be able to begin to take in the positives in your life until you’re able to accept that regardless of how much you might want it, Dave can’t come back.”
“I hate when you say that.”
“I know. It’s a reality you don’t want to accept.”