Thursday, March 28, 2024

Unrelenting Grief II


“I scared my wife when I got home from here last week,” Scott says. “I thought I’d cried myself out, but I took one look at her and fell into her arms sobbing. She kept asking me what was wrong and all I could do was cry. She asked if I was sick, if someone else died, if Gram died. And that made me cry even more. I don’t think I’d survive if Gram died right now. I know I told you Gramps was my protector and he was, but my Grandma is an incredible woman, so warm and loving. They had a great relationship. I’m afraid she won’t make it long without him. And you were right, both my grandparents just loved me for who I am. My parents each wanted me to be how they wanted me to be. And the thing that was most crazy-making was that they wanted totally opposite things from me.”  

Scott and I have very different stories, but his intense love for his grandparents and his profound sense of loss touches me greatly. Memories of my grandparents come flooding back, like the time my grandfather and I walked for what seemed to my little girl legs to be miles and miles, looking for a record that had struck a chord with me, “I’m a Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch.”  

I bring myself back to my patient. “Sounds like you’ve been thinking a lot about your past.”

“Absolutely!” Pause. “You asked why I was so afraid of my father. That made me wonder if he had sexually abused me, but I don’t think so. I know some people forget that stuff, but I really don’t think so.”

“There are lots of reasons to feel frightened other than sexual abuse.”

He sighs. “Good. I’m glad. There are other reasons.” Pause. “He’s big. And loud. And anything can set him off. Especially in relation to me.” Pause. “I actually think he hates me.” Pause. “You didn’t rush to say you’re sure he doesn’t hate me. That’s what most people say, especially my mother, but even my wife.”

“I have no idea whether your father hates you or not, but I’m certainly interested in why that’s your perception.”

“He has such contempt for me. Even my choosing to be a nurse. He’s constantly calling me a wimp or a pussy or an almost-doctor or wondering if I chose to be a nurse so I’d see him be ashamed in front of his friends.”

“That’s awful, Scott. What do you say when he says those things?”

“Usually nothing. I gave up fighting with my father years ago. When I was little and stood up to him he’d beat the shit out of me. I feel like I remember him saying he wished I was dead rather than my brother. I don’t for sure remember that, but I seem to.”

“Perhaps whether he said it directly or not, that’s the feeling you had and that’s a terribly painful, scary feeling.”

He nods. Tears fall from his eyes. “Gramps would never let him beat me. Gramps rarely screamed except at my father to keep him from beating me. Once I thought they’d get physical, but they didn’t. Maybe my Mom intervened. I’m not sure. But if she did then my Dad would just scream at her and I’d feel scared about that too. Like I should protect her, except I was too scared. Unless Gramps was there. Then everything would be all right.” Pause. “Now nothing will ever be all right again,” he says, burying his head in his hands crying.

“You’ve carried a lot of fear and pain with you for many years, Scott. And it’s like your grandfather’s death has literally opened the floodgates.”

“But I hate my tears! It’s just proves my father is right. I’m a wimp!”

“That’s your father’s voice. That’s the voice of your father that you have taken in and that you hear beat you up when you cry and probably whenever you’re sad and sensitive or perhaps even caring. We’ll need to work on helping you moderate his voice so that you can be kind to the sensitive child you were and the man you continue to be. I suspect you have your grandparents loving voices inside you as well, and that their voices will help you to become kinder towards yourself.”

Scott sighs deeply. “Sounds like a good goal, but one not so easily reached.”

“We’ll work on it.”

Monday, February 26, 2024

Unrelenting Grief

“I just can’t get over this,” Scott says his head buried in his hands, a tall, dark-haired man who looks like he’s in his mid-thirties. “He was 98 years old. Did I expect him to live forever? I loved him so much. And he was always, always there for me. When he and my Grandma decided they couldn’t handle the Kansas farm anymore they moved right next door to us. Actually giving up the farm was pretty hard for me too. I guess I’ve always been a softie. My Dad made fun of me, called me a wuss, a ‘girl,’ too sensitive for my own good. He was always trying to toughen me up. But I loved that farm. It was my safe space. I spent summers there, got to be rid of my Dad and just be loved by my Gram and Gramps. I’m sorry, I’m just rambling all over the place”

“Not at all,” I say. “I can feel how much you’re grieving.” I am near tears myself, remembering the pain of losing first my grandmother and then, three years later, my grandfather. Remembering too, although my grandparents lived not on a farm but in a three room apartment in the Bronx, I knew what it was to have and lose a safe space. “You’re talking about loss. Most people have a terrible time with loss. Doesn’t mean you’re a wuss. Loss of the farm, loss of the days of feeling safe and protected, now the loss of your Grandpa. Is your Grandma still with you?”

“Yes, she’s only 90,” he says with a slight smile. “In my family that’s almost young. But the last month has been really hard on her,” he says sobbing. “I guess it’s been really hard on all of us, taking turns sitting by his bedside, holding his hand, first all those machines and tubes and God knows what else. Then, nothing. I don’t know which was worse, hoping for a miracle, or letting go of hope,” he says breaking down in gut-wrenching sobs. 

Several minutes pass.

“I can’t go on like this. It’s over a month. I have a wife, a precious daughter, a job. I can’t just keep crying.”

“A month isn’t a long time, but I understand you’re saying you’re feeling his death too intensely, like it’s entirely consuming you.”

“Exactly! And I keep asking the same thing my father did, ‘What’s wrong with me?’”   

“I suspect there’s nothing wrong with you, but perhaps we can try to understand the intensity of your feelings. Whose Dad was he, your mother or father’s?”

“My mother’s. I never really knew my father’s parents. They were very old and lived across the country so we almost never saw them. I don’t think I even went to their funerals – my Mom probably wouldn’t have wanted me to.”


“She was over protective like that, wouldn’t have wanted me to get too close to death.” Pause. “I had an older brother who died before I was born. I’m not sure my mother ever got over that loss. And she spent a lot of time making sure I wasn’t going to die like he did.”

“How did he die?”

“I guess he was a real dare-devil kid from the moment he was born. Putting things into electrical sockets when he was like two, riding his bike in traffic, climbing taller and taller trees. That’s how he died, fell out of a tree. My Mom was going to have none of that with me.” 

“Are you saying your Dad pushed you to be more like your brother and your Mom pushed you to be anything but?”

“I never thought about it that way, but that’s exactly right.”

“And your grandparents?”

“I was fine however I was.”

“Wow, that’s quite a contrast. Your grandparents loved and accepted you for just being you. You didn’t have to do or not do anything. That’s an amazing gift. No wonder your grief is so profound.”

Scott weeps. After a while he says, “But I have to stop crying. Why can’t I stop crying?”

“Because you’ve lost one of the two people who were most able to love you.”

Scott shakes his head. “I think there’s more.”

“I’m sure there is. None of our behavior is so simply explained. Do you have any thoughts?”

“I think I’m afraid. I’m afraid of my father. I’ve always been afraid of my father. My Grandpa kept me safe from my father. Now that he’s gone I don’t know if I’ll be safe. I don’t know if I can keep myself safe. And my Grandma’s too depleted. Anyway she wasn’t the one who kept me safe from my father. It was Gramps, Gramps,” Scott says sobbing. “I’m such a baby. I’m a 36 year old man, how can I be so afraid of my father?”

“I guess that is the question, Scott. What went on between you and your father when you were little that made you so afraid of him? We already know that he was very critical of what he saw as your ‘weakness.’ But perhaps there was more. Our time is up for today, but perhaps we can continue with this next time.” 

Saturday, January 13, 2024

Not Again

As Cynthia sits scowling from the chair diagonally across from me, I remember why I was both surprised and less than thrilled to have her call and ask to return to treatment.

After several minutes of us staring at each other I say, “What prompted your wanting to return to therapy with me?”

“The New Year,” she says curtly, as if that provides an adequate explanation.

“And…?” I ask, prodding.

“What the fuck! You know people make resolutions about what they’re going to do to improve their lives. As if January 1 was the magic date.”

“That would imply there were things in your life you wanted to improve.”

“Of course! You know anyone who doesn’t want to improve their life!”

“This all feels very familiar Cynthia. You say you want to improve your life, you asked to come back into therapy with me, yet you’re immediately attacking everything I say.”

“What? You can’t take somebody challenging you?”

“Okay,” I say, hoping I’m hiding my desire to strangle her. “Let’s look at that last comment: You can’t take somebody challenging you. What impelled you to make that particular statement?”

“What? How should I know. It seemed like a good response to your dumb ass comment.”

Silently counting to 10, I reflect on how uncomfortable it is to be angry and to have to contain it. “Okay,” I say. “We already know you’re angry. And we know you have good reason to be angry. But would I be making a wild guess to say that perhaps one of the ways you’d like to make your life better is to be less angry?”

She shrugs.

We again sit in silence, but this silence feels a bit more comfortable, not as raw, not as challenging.

She mumbles something.

“I’m sorry,” I say, “I didn’t hear you.”

“It’s not a good way to make friends,” she says, barely over a whisper.

“True. In fact I think that sometimes you use your anger to keep people away.”

“Why would I want to do that?” she asks, the edge back in her voice.

“I wasn’t criticizing you when I said you use your anger to keep people away. I was making a comment that, if correct, might help you to think about when and why you try to keep people away and when you you’d like a person to be closer.”

“I never know,” Cynthia says, again barely above a whisper. “I do want more people in my life. But when they come at me, I don’t know, I just can’t take it.”

“Interesting choice of words, Cynthia – when they come at me – like when your parents came at you to punish you, beat you, hurt you.”

She nods, dropping her head. “Yeah.” Pause. “People aren’t safe.”

“Some people are safe.”

“You can always get them mad.”

“I guess you’re saying YOU can always get them mad by prodding and poking and challenging. Or by running away.”

“Who says I run away?!”

“There’s that edge again, Cynthia. I say you run away. If you didn’t run away you’d have more people in your life. You’d be less lonely.”

“I never said I was lonely!”

“You didn’t imply it?” I ask gently.

She shrugs. Pause. “I guess.” Pause. “I don’t want people getting too close. I could get hurt.”

“I understand that, but I wonder if you’re also saying it feels really scary to want people, to need them. Like it feels really scary to need me, to say you want to be here, that you need to be here.”

“Go fu…” Pause. “I was just going to tell you to go fuck yourself, but then that seemed like exactly what you were saying, that I use my anger to keep people away and maybe it’s because I don’t want to need any of those fucking people who are just going to hurt me again and again.”

“I’m impressed, Cynthia, that you were able to catch that yourself, reflect on it and keep yourself from giving an automatic angry response.”

“Yeah. I guess that was pretty good.”

I smile. “I’m glad you were able to take in a positive comment about yourself and accept it.”

“I guess.”

“Now don’t get too enthusiastic,” I say teasingly.

“I… I’m glad I came back.”     

“Thank you, Cynthia,” I say. “I’m really, really glad you came back too.”