A Matter of Death and Life

A Matter of Death and Life

by Irvin D. Yalom, MD & Marilyn Yalom, PhD
In this excerpt from A Matter of Death and Life, Irvin Yalom speaks from the depths of pain over losing his beloved wife and co-author, Marilyn; not only to fellow therapists but to all of us who have lost loved ones. 
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Excerpted from A Matter of Death and Life by Irvin D. Yalom and Marilyn Yalom, published by Stanford University Press, ©2021 by Irvin D. Yalom and Marilyn Yalom. All Rights Reserved.

Numbness, 50 Days After

Numbness persists. My children visit. We take walks in the neighborhood, cook together, play chess, and watch movies on TV. Yet I remain numb. I feel uninvolved in the chess games with my sons. Winning or losing has lost significance.

Yesterday evening there was a neighborhood poker game, and my son Reid and I both played. It was the first time I’ve ever played together with one of my sons in a game of adults. I’ve always loved poker but at this game, at this time, I could not shuck the numbness. Sounds like depression, I know, but still I took pleasure in seeing Reid’s happiness about winning thirty dollars. As I walked back to my home, I imagined how good it would have felt to arrive home, be greeted by Marilyn, and tell her about our son’s winning night at poker.

The following night I try an experiment and place the portrait of Marilyn in plain view in the room while my son, his wife, and I watch a movie on TV. But, after a few minutes, I feel so much tightness in my chest that I again put Marilyn’s portrait out of sight. The numbness persists as the film proceeds. After about a half hour, I realize that Marilyn and I had seen this movie several months before. I lose interest in seeing it again but remembering that Marilyn had enjoyed it a great deal, I honor the bizarre notion that I owe it to her to watch the entire film.

I notice that the numbness recedes the first few hours of the day when I am immersed in writing this book and also when I work as a therapist
I notice that the numbness recedes the first few hours of the day when I am immersed in writing this book and also when I work as a therapist. Today, a woman in her late twenties enters my office for a consultation. She presents her dilemma. “I’m in love with two men, my husband and another man I’ve been involved with for the last year. I don’t know which is the real love. When I’m with one of them, I feel that he’s my real love. And then the next day or so I feel the same way about the other man. It’s as though I want someone to tell me which one is the real love.”

She discusses her dilemma at length. Midway through the session, she notes the time and mentions that she had seen my wife’s obituary. She thanks me for being willing to see her at this difficult time. “I worry” she says, “about burdening you with my issues when you’re suffering such a huge loss.”

“Thank you for those words,” I reply, “but some time has gone by, and I find that it helps me if I’m engaged in helping others. And also, there are times when issues arising from my grief enable me to help others.”

“How does that work?” she asks. “Are you thinking of something that may be helpful to me?”

“I’m not clear about that. Let me just ramble for a minute. Let’s see . . . I know that getting involved in your life in this session temporarily diverts me from my own. I’m thinking, too, of your comment that you don’t know your real self and that you cannot know which of these two men the real you really wants. I keep thinking about your use of real. I feel this may be tangential, but I’ll just trust my instincts and tell you what our discussion stirs up in me.

I, and only I, have to take full responsibility for determining reality
“For a very long time I’ve felt that an event often felt ‘real’ only after I shared it with my wife. But now, weeks after my wife’s death, I have this very strange experience of something happening and my feeling I must tell my wife about this. It’s as though things don’t become ‘real’ until my wife knows about them. And, of course, that is entirely irrational because my wife no longer exists. I don’t know how to put this in a way that will be helpful but here it is: I, and only I, have to take full responsibility for determining reality. Tell me, does this have any meaning for you?”

She seems deep in thought and then looks up and says, “That does speak to me. You’re right if you’re implying that I cannot trust my sense of reality and that I want others—perhaps one of my two men, perhaps you—to identify reality. My husband is weak and always defers to my observations, to my sense of reality. And the other man is stronger, very successful in business, very sure of himself, and I feel safer and more protected and trust his sense of reality. Yet I also know that he’s a long-term addict who is now in AA and has now been sober for only a few weeks. I think the truth is that I mustn’t trust either of them to define reality for me. Your words make me realize that it’s my job to define reality—my job and my responsibility.”

Toward the end of our hour together, I suggest that she is not ready to make a decision and should tackle this in depth in continued therapy. I give her the names of two excellent therapists and ask that she email me a few weeks from now to let me know how she is doing. She is deeply touched by my sharing so much with her and says that this hour has been so meaningful that she didn’t want to leave. 

©2021 by Irvin D. Yalom and Marilyn Yalom.
photo of Irvin and Marilyn Yalom togetherIrvin D. Yalom, MD, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and renowned psychotherapist, is the author of many internationally bestselling books, including Love's Executioner, The Gift of Therapy, Becoming Myself, and When Nietzsche Wept.

Marilyn Yalom, PhD, was a world-famous professor of French and comparative literature, a pioneering scholar in gender studies, a popular speaker on the lecture circuit, the author of numerous articles on literature and women's history, and books including A History of the Wife, Birth of the Chess Queen, How the French Invented Love, as well as her final book released posthumously, Innocent Witnesses: Childhood Memories of World War II.

Irvin and Marilyn Yalom were married for sixty-five years.