Meaningful You

Voices of contemporary psychoanalysis

Love and Loss

How a psychoanalyst's private life affects working with loss and widowhood

This blog curates the voices of the Division of Psychoanalysis (39) of the American Psychological Association. This article is submitted by Linda B. Sherby, PhD, author of the book "Love and Loss in Life and in Treatment."

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Have you ever wondered what really goes on behind the closed door of a psychoanalyst’s office? Have you wondered what an analyst really thinks? Have you wondered about her private life and how that life affects the interaction between her and her patients? The following vignette provides a glimpse into one analyst’s thoughts, life and treatment.

Ten months after the death of my husband, I hear the following message on my voice mail: “I’m Molly Callahan. I need to see someone. I lost my husband six months ago and I’m having a hard time.” Her soft but determined voice wavers toward the end. She leaves her phone number. I sit staring out my window at the darkening sky; shades from light gray to black, trees whipping wildly in the wind, all warnings of the storm headed our way. I think about this woman I have not yet met.  

The question is: Am I ready? Am I ready to hear another widow’s pain? Will I be able to put aside my own grief to work effectively with hers? Or perhaps I should ask if I could use my own grief to hear hers more deeply. I decide I’m up to the task, and that is how Molly, a striking, curvaceous, dark-haired woman, becomes my patient.    

There are startling similarities between us, including that her husband was born on the same day as mine (different year) and that they were both building contractors. But more than that, Molly and I mourn similarly, both consumed by pain, but determined to go on with our lives; both taking our deceased spouses with us in our minds in a way that allows us to feel connected and less alone.

There are of course major differences in both age and life experiences. In addition, Molly’s husband died instantly of a heart attack. His heart problems weren’t new, but he hadn’t taken good care of himself, refusing to go to doctors or to take his medication. My husband died of metastatic prostate cancer after a long and debilitating illness.

Valentine’s Day approaches, a day in which lovers rejoice and widows mourn even more than usual. We are also approaching the second anniversary of her husband Mitch’s death.

“Saturday [the day Mitch died] was really hard,” she says. “I was going through his death hour by hour, wondering about all the ‘if onlys.’ I know Mitch didn’t take care of himself, but I shouldn’t have left him. I bought him a Valentine’s card and took out all his cards and poems and read them.”

My throat tightens. My stomach clenches. My eyes well with tears. For months, even years, just passing the card section in supermarkets, in drugstores, wherever, left me in a bucket of tears. “Birthday for Husband.” I have no husband. “Birthday for Wife.” I am no longer anyone’s wife.  “Anniversary.” There will be no more anniversaries. “Valentine’s Day.”  There is no one to be my Valentine.

“Is it comforting for you to read the cards or are you torturing yourself?” I ask, knowing that I couldn’t bear to read the cards from my husband that I have so diligently saved.

“I’m not torturing myself. It’s more comforting,” Molly responds, reminding me that despite the similarities in our grieving process, there are differences between us.

I’m also reminded of the importance of humility, that a therapist can never assume she knows what a patient thinks or feels, even when she’s had feelings or experiences that are similar.

About three years after her husband’s death, Molly meets a man and becomes seriously involved with him. I’m delighted for her, and also somewhat jealous. Molly found someone new she could love; I haven’t even come close.

One day Molly comes in looking sad and drawn. She tells me the following story:

“I slept over at John’s. I was getting dressed. He was in the shower. Suddenly I heard this huge noise. I ran in. He was on the floor. I thought my heart would stop. I’ve never seen anyone have a seizure before, but I was pretty sure that was what was happening. It was terrifying. When he came out of it he was entirely disoriented. It took hours for him to come to himself. He admitted he has seizures. He said he has medication but he doesn’t like how it makes him feel, so he doesn’t take it.”

As Molly talks, my anxiety soars. My heart beats quickly, my stomachs turns. Not again, I think. She’d never survive it. I’d never survive it. I could never survive another loss, not this soon, not again. I also wonder if Molly unconsciously knew about John’s illness. Her father had heart problems for much of her childhood before he too died when she was only ten. Is she unconsciously trying to save “sick” men in the present, to make up for not having been able to save her father in the past? An important question, but clearly one for another day.

Coming from a place fueled by my own anxiety, I step out of my non-directive analyst role and say, “You have to get John to a doctor. You have to tell him you can’t go through this again.”

“I know,” she says. “I couldn’t handle it. I love him. I can’t lose him. Not again.”

Fortunately, this time is different. After repeated seizures and attempts at various medications, John’s seizures are controlled.

Time goes on. It’s again Valentine’s Day, now five years after Molly’s husband’s death and six years after mine. Molly and John are able to enjoy each other’s love. 

As for me, I still have no one to be my Valentine. And I still can’t bear the thought of reading my husband’s cards. But I do cry less often; the weight of his loss diminished. And I can still hear him say, in his soft, melodious voice, “My love.”

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Image: Flickr/HartwigHKD cc license

Kristi Pikiewicz is managing editor of the American Psychological Association's Division of Psychotherapy DIVISION/Review.

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