Psychotherapy Blog

 

Grief is a Strange Land

Posted by Deb Kory, PsyD on 8/22/17 - 4:11 PM
My mom died recently after struggling with dementia and severe rheumatoid arthritis for many, many years. I moved to the Bay Area from the East Coast in the year 2000 to be closer to her, as I thought she might not have much time left, and 17 years later, on a sunny spring morning shortly after my 43rd birthday, she died as I lay in a liminal half-sleep between the 3rd and 4th round of my snooze alarm. I woke to a series of texts from her very dear Armenian-American caretaker at her assisted living facility:

9:19am
Hi Deb,
Mrs Linda’s blood pressure dropped
significantly this morning, called
hospice to monitor her

9:34am
I’m sorry to let you know, Mrs Linda
Passed away :(

What?! While I slept? Over text?! I wandered frantically around my apartment for a minute, or ten, searching for my mother’s gone-ness, eyes open wide, unblinking.

I had waited and prepared for this moment, had even started praying, tentatively and awkwardly, that she be released from her incontinent, bed-bound, arthritic limbs and atrophied mind, and yet: How could she just die like that? I was going to go visit her in two weeks for her 78th birthday. I should have gone sooner. I should have gone sooner.

Much of that day was spent a few inches outside of my body as I negotiated with the mortuary, made calls to friends and family, and repeated the phrase “My mom died,” each time a dissociated succession of syllables. My friends knew of her long struggle, my long struggle, and said things like, “You must have mixed feelings.” I did not have mixed feelings. I was devastated.

This was Friday. I went back to seeing clients Monday, and didn’t tell anyone that my mother had died. Eleven years earlier, when my father died after a struggle with Alzheimer’s, I had also gone right back to seeing clients at my practicum in graduate school, but because I had canceled sessions for two weeks while he was dying, I told them why I had been away. This time there was no dying—just death—and not many details to attend to after. My mom’s sickness had been long, her personality alienating, her plight sad; by the time she died there were no friends left, no one with whom to gather for a funeral.

Not having skipped a day of work, I decided I would only share my loss if it arose organically with a client. It didn’t. I felt protective of them. How hard would it be to talk about themselves, whatever they were working on at the moment, once they found out my mom had just died? Plus, I was still kind of numb—would I come across like a zombie with no remorse? Would I be able to reassure them that I was in fact OK and that I was just where I wanted to be? I imagined what a drag it would be to go to my therapist, prepped to talk about the week’s pathos, only to find out her mom had died. I would feel like a self-involved jerk diving into my own preoccupations in the face of her loss, and would feel like a jerk talking about how I felt like a jerk talking about my own preoccupations. No, I didn’t want anyone to bear my burden. That’s not why they come to therapy, after all.

The opaque sense of unreality that arose in the weeks after she died—my palette of sensations muted like a blue twilight after the sun disappears—was almost comforting. “Perhaps this won’t be that hard,” I thought. After all, she’d been deteriorating, and then dying, almost forever. Losing her had been a slow and steady stream of small infirmities and indignities rather than a flash flood, the erosion of her essential being an accumulation of griefs I hoped would inoculate me against the crushing pain I had suffered after my father died.

But I didn’t know how to both bear my burden and not burden clients. I wanted to be doing therapy—I felt present and alive with my clients—but after a few weeks it felt like the vessel in my heart where I hold people’s pain, their stories, had no more room in it. I hadn’t entirely understood that place in my body until it stopped working, and it was alarming. Because I wasn’t experiencing paroxysms of grief, weeping uncontrollably at random intervals, I mistook myself for “not really grieving.” This was compounded by the fact that my mom was in many ways a “not-good-enough” mom—her mental and physical illnesses had compromised her ability to mother long ago, but I thought I had “dealt” with that grief already, damnit. So what was this parched-solar-plexus feeling?

Ah…It was my grief.

You see, I loved her madly. Still do.

I took the week off from work in an effort to bring some space and consciousness to my grieving. I slept, read, wrote in my journal, saw beloved friends, exercised, booked an extra therapy session, got a massage. It was awful. Anxious, listless, unmoored from my routines, I spent the week berating myself for not doing a better job at grieving. I felt it was up to me to figure out an appropriate ritual to mark her death, but the idea overwhelmed me. What would I say? Who would I want to bear witness? Inside or outside? What spiritual tradition to draw from? My dad was Jewish. She was a blend of everything and nothing, but a spiritual person. Where would I release her ashes? It was too much to figure out; I was tired. I stuck her ashes in the closet near, but not directly next to, my father. They hated each other. Was it OK for them to be in the same closet? I watched a video about cremation and decided it was.

The capacity to be wise and spacious around others’ pain, the sense of tenderhearted compassion that comes so readily through me in my role as a therapist, often tricks me into thinking I don’t need help with my own struggles. But I don’t have me the way that my clients do. I have my own therapist and she, in turn, doesn’t have herself the way that I have her. We cannot be our own therapists. Therapist-Me is also an orphan right now, struggling to make sense of death, of having no parents, of the freeing and terrifying reality of being on my own—generationally-speaking—for the rest of my time here on earth. No amount of “self-care,” parenting of my inner child, and guided meditations makes Therapist-Me available to myself.

Despite years of training in the mental health field and working with people as they struggle with death, I’m struck by what a strange land grief is for me. I’ve heard many therapists say that their own grief has brought a richness and depth to their work with clients, and I think that is true for me too, but not in a particularly tangible way. What I am most aware of is how nurturing working with clients is to me right now. It is the only place where I am fully present, and being present is a tender relief as I navigate the complexity of loss in my own life.

How have your experiences of grief impacted your work as a therapist? What has helped you? What has not? I would love to know. Feel free to send me an email at: Deborah@psychotherapy.net.
Back to Top ▲