“I still can’t believe it,” Marcy says, tears streaming down her face, her hands clenched into fists. “
I can’t believe my big brother is dead. In an instance. He’d just played racket ball that morning. To die just like that. No sign of any heart problems. I can’t believe it.”
“I’m so sorry, Marcy. I know how important your brother was to you, almost like a stand-in father.”
Marcy nods, sobbing, unable to speak.
“And his sudden death must bring up all the feelings you had as a child when your father died so suddenly.”
March nods again, reaches for a tissue and blows her nose. “That’s why I know Dave did everything he could not to repeat our father’s history, not to leave a wife and young kids. He never smoked, didn’t eat red meat, exercised. And he barely made it into his fifties. It’s so unfair,” she says. “Life is so God damn unfair!”
Silence. Marcy looks up at me and says, “You look so sad yourself.”
Marcy has read me correctly. I reverberate with her pain. Although I never had a brother and my father didn’t die young, I’ve had my share of losses. The intensity of Marcy’s pain brings back the feelings of agonizing loss, of emptiness, of disbelief at knowing you will never again see the one you loved. That life is unfair goes without saying. I no longer rail against that indisputable reality. Loss is a necessary part of love and life. And life without love isn’t worth living.
I respond honestly. “Yes, Marcy. I am. I feel the depth of your loss, your sadness and just as your brother’s death brings up past feelings about your father’s death, it also stimulates feelings about my past losses.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you sad,” she says, immediately illustrating the problem of a therapist being self-revealing.
“That’s perfectly okay, Marcy. You don’t have to take care of me. You have more than enough to do right now taking care of your own feelings. And, besides, although your pain now feels overwhelmingly agonizing, I know that you wouldn’t have given up having your brother in your life. And that’s true for me and my losses as well.”
“Oh no! I would never have given up having him in my life. Not for a moment. I literally don’t know what I would have done without him as a kid.” Pause. “But I’m still going to miss him,” she adds plaintively. “I feel like a kid when I say that,” she says between sobs.
“We all carry the child part of us along with our adult self, so I’m sure both the adult you and the child you will miss him. Very much.”
“You know what you said about my not having to take care of you?”
“Right. You don’t.”
“I was thinking how different that was than when my father died. I was only six, but I felt that I had to take care of my mother. I was supposed to be the one to make her feel better. And I couldn’t do that. She felt bad for a long, long time. I can feel how I felt as that child. That long, long time felt like forever. And while I tried to take care of her, she wasn’t so good at taking care of me. Good thing my brother was 18, or who knows what would have happened to me. Probably shipped off to some aunt I hardly knew. My brother tried hard. But sometimes my clothes didn’t match or my hair was all messy. I don’t remember the other kids making fun of me. They mostly felt sorry for me, but that didn’t feel so good either.”
“It all sounds terribly painful, Marcy. So hard for you.”
“And now I’m back at it again. Trying to make Mom feel better. But it always seems reasonable. First she loses her husband, now her son. What could be worse than that? But I don’t want in that role again. It’s such a burden.”
“Are you concerned, Marcy, that you will need to take care of me, too?”
“No,” she says hesitantly.
“You don’t sound too sure.”
“Well, you don’t seem depressed and you’re certainly functional.” Pause. “But maybe making you feel sad worries me. Like I’m not supposed to do that.”
“I understand, Marcy. We should continue to look at that. And maybe looking at your feelings of needing to take care of me, will help you work through some of the past issues with your mother and free you from the burden of feeling responsible for her happiness.”