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Full Container

by Sylvia Johnson
Couples therapy can unlock and heal the deepest of pains, those related to the loss of a child.


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Seldom or never does a marriage develop into an individual relationship smoothly without crisis.
There is no birth of consciousness without pain.


C.G. Jung

Too Soon?

Upon leaving my hospice support group on September 11th, I turned on the car radio and heard that the Twin Towers had collapsed. Jared, a boy we knew with neuroblastoma, had also died early that morning. I became more disoriented than I already was. I can’t say I was any sadder, because that would be impossible. I met a friend at Perkins for lunch, and everyone there looked dazed like me. I didn’t feel like an alien anymore. Now everyone knew what I had already known—that complete devastation can happen in the blink of an eye.

Now everyone knew what I had already known—that complete devastation can happen in the blink of an eye
Two weeks later, I called Hedy Schleifer, a renowned psychologist I spoke with when my two-year-old daughter Jillian was diagnosed with cancer. I asked if she thought I could handle the Imago Relationship Therapy clinical training, starting in November. Jillian had died in June. I was hoping Hedy would say, “It’s too fresh, you’re too vulnerable to take on such intensity,” but she didn’t. “Do it,” she said. “If not now, when?” I knew she was right.

Harville Hendrix’s Imago Relationship Theory is based on the idea that we marry our Imago—the image of the person who can make us whole again. We are attracted to the perfect mate to help us regain what we lost in childhood. But this person pushes all of our buttons first.

It was actually Tom who urged me to do this. He agreed to join me for the three one-week sessions, scheduled over a period of months. Tom and I had taken the two-day couples therapy workshop, but this training would allow me to become a certified Imago coach. I hadn’t seen any clients since Jillian got sick. Now I would have to see clients in order to provide the required taped coaching sessions.

On the first day of training, there were sixteen chairs in a circle. Hedy had “accidentally” included an extra chair. The empty chair supported a blue balloon with a blue ribbon. Jillian’s favorite color was blue. Was it a sign of approval? On each of the subsequent sessions, there happened to be a blue ribbon somewhere in the room. After Jillian died, a neighbor placed blue ribbons on all of the mailboxes in our subdivision. When someone we love dies, we grasp for signs that they are okay. I believe that sometimes they give them to us.

Hedy would begin each session by saying something like, “Today is November 14, 2001. It is the one and only November 14, 2001. What are you going to do with it?” She would also say, “It’s a great day. When I woke up this morning, I recognized myself.” Her mother, who had Alzheimer’s, could not. Just being in Hedy’s presence raised my consciousness.

Since most of the other therapists came without spouses, Tom and I were often the demonstration couple. It was like free therapy. After the first session, I made a Freudian slip that I had never made before. I said, “There’s my heaven,” attempting to say, “There’s my husband.” That’s exactly how I felt. Our connection was closer than ever; it felt like heaven.

Release and Containment

We were both still raw from Jillian’s death. Hedy suggested that we alternate crying in each other’s arms once a week. So that is what we did. After we got home, every Saturday we would alternate crying in each other’s arms. One of us talked or cried while the other listened and held.

We were both still raw from Jillian’s death
When your child dies, it is extremely difficult to be emotionally available to your spouse. You both need someone, like a mommy, to care for you. We took turns caring for each other.

We were at the Comfort Inn on Miami Beach. Instead of lying on the moist sand, inhaling the salty ocean breeze, Tom and I sat face-to-face on gray cloth and metal office chairs, inhaling the basement’s mildew. It was the third and final week of our Imago Relationship Therapy clinical training. While a semicircle of seven participants observed, Hedy sat inches away, coaching our every move in this process, aptly named the “Full Container.” A conduit to deep emotional pain rooted in childhood, this exercise allowed one partner to fully express his or her rage while the other partner created a quiet, welcoming space to contain all of it. A spiritual energy pulsated from Hedy’s regal posture and her wispy salt-and-pepper hair, even through her dangling bracelets and flowing black, white, and red pantsuit. The three of us formed a triangle as we sat in open postures with our hands on our thighs.

Tom cleared his throat, “Uhum. Well, Sylvia.” Nervous smiles sprouted on both our faces as he leaned forward. “We even talked this morning about the thing I’m going to be mad about and you had no clue what it would be. Seventeen years of marriage, and we both knew what yours would be.” Tom raised his hands and plopped them back on his thighs. “But you had no idea what mine would be. Get a job. Get a job.”

Hedy whispered, “And it pisses me off.”

Tom unleashed his anger. “It pisses me off. It really pisses me off on many levels. It pisses me off on many levels.”

For an instant I was a frozen little girl again, watching my own father derail
Tom’s accusing tone cut through to the back of my throat. For an instant I was a frozen little girl again, watching my own father derail. Hedy had prepared me so well for this exercise that I snapped back to the present and returned to Tom with loving eyes, open to the full extent of his rage. I could see both the face of a little boy and a man as he ranted.

Tom’s hands bounced up and down on his thighs with increasing intensity as he shouted. “We got married, and you had a degree in engineering and decided you wanted to go into psychology. I put your ass through school. You didn’t have to work at all. You didn’t have to work at all. I put you through school.”

Although I was able to maintain contact with soft eyes, I wanted to scream, “What are you talking about? I began working the second year of graduate school and worked until Jillian was born. That’s nine years.”

Instead, I tapped Hedy’s leg, per earlier instructions. She cradled my right hand in her left and waved her right hand over my chest a few times, helping me return to the present. While maintaining eye contact with Tom, I silently prayed for God’s love to channel straight through me to him. My task in this process was to contain his rage with every fiber of my being, so that he could allow the full extent of his life force to emerge in a safe environment, as never before. I relaxed my face and felt the light in my eyes as they reflected my thoughts. “I’m here again, Tom. I’m here again. My job is to see it the way you see it. Yes, you put me through school. I certainly haven’t worked as much as I could have.”

He scowled and shook his head back and forth. “All I heard was your bitching and moaning about having to do papers. Aaaah,” he mimicked me in a high-pitched whine. “I can’t do this. I can’t do that. Waaaah.”

His caustic masculine voice returned. “While I was working, all I heard was your bitching and moaning the whole time. You graduated. We had your big graduation thing. You thanked every fucking person in the whole world, except me, who put you through school. I was so mad. I thought I got over it, but I didn’t. I’m still mad about that.”

While still holding my hand, Hedy said, “Again,” to Tom. Amplifying his rage and enabling me to support him was her role in this part of the process.

“That really pissed me off that you thanked every fucking person in the world at the thing, publicly, except me, who put you through school.”

Hedy’s expression intensified, “Again.”

His now piercing volume escalated with each repetition. “It really pissed me off that you thanked every fucking person in the world, publicly, except me who put you through school! And, oh, thanks to your Mom, who’s out there golden.”

And besides, are you forgetting my mother was dying of cancer at the time?
His sarcasm stung. Although the onlookers had faded into the background, they popped back into my awareness and I wanted to slink off my seat. What must they think of me? I became defensive, developing a silent counterattack. “I thanked you profusely in the written part of my speech. And besides, are you forgetting my mother was dying of cancer at the time?” Struggling to get my frontal cortex operational again, I squeezed Hedy’s hand. The rational part of me gained control as I told myself, “Stay here with Tom, stay here and try to see it the way he does. I did forget to mention him when I began talking spontaneously.”

He raised his lanky arms and waved them at his sides. “But Tom, who worked his ass off while you’re going through school. Oh, and I’m not supportive. I wasn’t supportive of you that whole time. I wasn’t fucking supportive. I heard that so many fucking times. It just pissed me off. No, I wasn’t supportive of you at all. It just made me so fucking mad.”

Tom’s voice lowered just a notch. “Then we get to this thing and I see how you’re wasting your talent.”

Hedy released my hand and leaned back in her seat. She knew I could fly solo at that point.

Tom’s hands clenched his thighs, and he nodded his head back and forth rhythmically; it was not quite a yes, more like a turkey gobble. “It’s like I signed us up for the Imago thing. Presumably I did it to improve our marriage. And then I saw how good you were on the two tapes. And I knew you were not going to fucking use it. You were going to have one or two clients. You knew you were going to lose five thousand bucks a year or whatever. You have a Ph fucking D! You ought to have been making more money than me. You shouldn’t have been losing money every year. It pisses me off completely that you’re so irresponsible that everything has to be on me. That you don’t make any fucking money. That you don’t take any responsibility for yourself. You make excuses, about Jillian or whatever. Oh well, look at all the other years. There are other years in there. Yeah, you worked, and you piddled around. You could never collect your money. You could never do what it took to be responsible to take responsibility for yourself. To make some fucking money. To take some pressure off me.”

I only saw a couple of clients because I was a stay-at-home mother, then she got cancer and then she died
My insides trembled, and I wanted to jump up and shout, “The money loss began after Jillian was born. I only saw a couple of clients because I was a stay-at-home mother, then she got cancer and then she died. When was I supposed to be making money?” Hedy was right when she said, “One partner’s deepest need meets the other’s greatest defense in this process.” I wanted to put my defenses aside, to remain present. To see it his way, I was irresponsible with money and have never earned what I’m capable of earning.

I’ve seen Tom enraged before, but never as physically and verbally unrestricted.

“Oh yeah, and I’m going to send you to Spain. And I want to do that for you. But there’s another part of me that’s really pissed off that you never took responsibility for yourself, that you never took the pressure off of me, that you were never there for me, that you couldn’t decide to pull your weight, to do your part.”

Hedy thrust her fist forward. “I’m sick and tired of it.”

“I’m really fucking sick and tired of it,” Tom repeated.

Hedy leaned in, “Again!”

“I’m fucking sick and tired of it. I’m tired of being the accommodator. I know you don’t want me to be the accommodator, but I’m tired of being the accommodator, the one who provides all the support, the one who has to be reliable.”

I Lost a Child Too

Tom mimicked my voice again, “Oh, waah. I’m going to cry for nine months about Jillian. You get to stay home and cry for nine months and act like you’re the only one who lost a child. You know what? I lost a child, too!” Sadness cracked through Tom’s anger. “I lost a child, too, and you don’t know I lost a child, too.”

Hedy waved her fist and rattled, “Keep coming with the anger. Feel the sadness and keep coming with the anger.”

I lost a child, too, Sylvia, goddammit!
“I lost a child, too, Sylvia, goddammit! You act like you’re the only one who lost her! You don’t know I lost her, too. I lost a child, too.” We both begin sobbing. “What about me? It makes me mad. You don’t see I was her father. I lay in that crib with her. I lay in that hospital bed with her. And you don’t see that I was her father.”

Hedy placed her hand on my belly and I took her hand. I breathed deeply and relaxed into the safety of her presence.

“You don’t see how much I loved her and how much she meant to me. But no, it’s all you, Sylvia, all that time. But, you know what? She was my child, too, and I loved her. You didn’t do shit.”

While still holding my hand, Hedy turned to Tom. “Feel the anger.”

“It’s all fucking your problem. I had to go to work every fucking day while you got to lay home and feel aaaah like shit, and I get to go to work every fucking day!”

His girly voice faded in and out. “Oh, I can’t go to work.”

“Well fuck it, Sylvia. You’ve done that the whole time we’ve been married. You’ve always had some excuse why you couldn’t pull your weight. Why is it all about you? It had nothing to do with me. Jillian was my daughter too. She was my daughter.”

Hedy leaned in toward Tom, “Unclench your jaw.”

He flailed his hands at his sides like he was having a seizure. “She was my daughter. I feel that pain, I feel that pain as much as you!” He screamed at the top of his lungs. “You heard me wail, didn’t you hear me wail? I miss her like hell! Goddamm, I miss her!”

Hedy leaned toward Tom, “Open up the jaw.”

“I miss her. I miss her more than you.” He stuck out his tongue like a 5-year- old taunting his sister. “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”

Even though I was petrified, I smiled when I saw that little boy’s face.
Even though I was petrified, I smiled when I saw that little boy’s face.

His brow furrowed deeper than I’ve ever seen, and his jugular veins bulged as blood rushed to his face. “She was Papa’s girl. Fuck it. She was Papa’s girl. She’d say that, wouldn’t she? She saw that, too, how everything was all about you. How it was all about you. How everything was about you. It made me so fucking mad. It was all about you and your pain with Jillian. It was never about me. You were ready to fucking divorce me while we were going through that shit, do you remember that? All that crap we were going through. I’d have to be the supportive one. You were ready to kill me because you were in so much pain. Jillian was in so much pain. And you told me, when this is all over, I’m going to divorce you. You were attacking the crap out of me. Fuck that. I’m doing all that shit. I was there with her, too, trying to support you and her, emotionally, physically, and financially.”

Part of me wanted to leave my body, but another part fought to remain there with Tom. I remembered Hedy’s instructions, 10% of this is about me, while the other 90% had its roots in his childhood. I opened up a closed space within and made more room for him.

His voice softened as he alternated between mimicking my voice and his own. “It’s all over, Tom, when it’s over, which it wasn’t. We didn’t do that. But goddamn, that pissed me off. Fuck it. It’s going to be all over. Fuck it. It’s going to be all over. You’re dead. You’re nothing.”

I sat with loving eyes, in a meditative trance, palms facing up on my thighs, realizing that he had hit the existential statement that led him back to childhood memories.

“Made me so fucking mad that I’m nothing. I’m fucking nothing.”

“Again,” said Hedy.

“I’m fucking nothing. I’m nothing to you. “I’m nothing.”

“Yes, five times.”

“I’m fucking nothing.”

“Stand up,” Hedy said as she rose. “I’m nothing!”

Tom stood and leaned over me. “I’m nothing. I’m nothing. I’m nothing. I’m nothing. I’m nothing, NOTHING!”

“Let what comes with that come. Scream it out.”

“I’m nothing. I’m fucking nothing. I’m nothing. I’m nothing, I’m nothing to you,” he said, whimpering.

Hedy guided me to my feet. Tom and I stood inches apart.

He sobbed. “I was nothing, nothing, nothing, to my parents, to my mother.”

I took him into my arms. He pulled me in and whispered. “I love you. I love you.”

 From the corner of my eye, I notice the other therapists watching spellbound as Tom’s unspeakable pain flooded out on the floor in a torrent. A Kleenex box passed around the room and an occasional loud honking sound broke their silence. Tom and I were wired with microphones, but words were difficult to discern as Tom alternated between mumbling, moaning, and wailing.

Although my ego hung onto remnants of his earlier words, I decided to put it on a shelf until later. I patted his back. Hedy gently placed her hand over mine, to stop my automatic consoling. “Take all the time in the world. I’m right here,” she whispered.

I repeated her words in Tom’s ear.

“I was nothing to my parents. They never noticed me. I had to be invisible, this perfect little robot, responsible, reliable.” As Tom spoke between sobs, he transported us to a scene in his childhood. “I was all alone in my crib, crying. I was very lonely, but no one would come to comfort me. I stood in the crib, violently shaking it. The darkness and pit of loneliness in my gut stretched out to forever.”

“You were so little, so lonely, so afraid,” Hedy whispered.

As I repeated the words, Tom belted out a ghostly moan for several minutes before he began speaking again. “The crib slowly jerked across the wooden floor until it slammed into my bedroom door. The crib was just the right height to hit the doorknob and lock the door. I heard my father struggling to unlock it and push it open. My heart pounded. I stood quietly as my father managed to push the door open. He had a wild look in his eyes. I wanted to die.”

Tom moaned and moaned, I cradled his body with my eyes tightly shut. After several minutes, the crying stopped, but his breathing remained labored.

“How should it have been, Tom?” Hedy said.

I repeated her words in his ear.

“They should have heard me long before my crib made it all the way across the room to the door. They should have seen I was there. They should have held me when I cried. I would have felt safe and wonderful and that it was okay for me to be alive.”

As Tom wept, Hedy whispered in my ear, “That’s just how it should have been. Your parents should have come running when they heard a little peep from you.”

I whispered gently in his ear. “That’s just how it should have been. Your crib should have never shaken all the way to the door before your father came in. You should have been able to make the slightest peep and had your parents come and look in your eyes and know they had the most wonderful little boy in the world.”

“Peep, peep,” Tom said.

“Here I am,” I said, and we both giggled.

“Peep, peep,” he repeated.

“I’m still here.” I held him tight, now resting my head on his.

Hedy leaned in. “Reposition yourself slightly, so you can look in each other’s eyes and soak in all that you’re feeling.”


Tom and I gazed into each other’s eyes as time stood still. He looked different, more alive, somehow. I could really see him as I looked in his eyes, like clear pools, a direct link to the divine. The space between us felt sacred, alive with rejuvenated energy. Emerging from the invisible boy was the man I had waited for my whole life. He smiled a full, incandescent smile.

This article is excerpted from the unpublished book Why Jillian? by the author.

© 2021 Psychotherapy.net, LLC
Sylvia Johnson Sylvia Johnson, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author who lives in Tampa, Florida. She specializes in grief and working with couples and young children. Her blog, “A Mindful Grief,” appears in PsychologyToday.com. She has written essays for Psychotherapy Networker, Reader's Digest, and other publications. Her unpublished manuscript, Why Jillian?, is a memoir about her journey through her young daughter's cancer diagnosis and death. Dr. Johnson can be contacted at sylviaalvarezjohnson@gmail.com.