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Is She Really Gone?

Loss can masquerade in different disguises.

Key points

  • Your body can remember loss.
  • First, name your loss. Then accept the loss.
  • Once you experience the loss, you can be freed up to cry.
Photo by Joy Dryer
Nubia pendant 8th century BC. Head of Hathor, Getty Villa Museum
Source: Photo by Joy Dryer

“When I walked out of the kitchen, Johnny was screaming, squinty-eyed with his tongue hanging out.” Raina crosses her legs. “You were the parent in charge. How’d you let him get to that state?”

“Me? Why am I to blame?” Roy sticks out his chin.

“Because you think a flexible bedtime is OK. You decided to let him stay up until Cousin Laura left.”

“I didn’t really ‘decide.’ They were having such fun playing…” Roy tripped over his words.

Raina leans toward Roy. “This wishy-washy bedtime doesn’t work!”

“Try ‘flexible,'" Roy counters. “Not ‘wishy-washy.’ We’ve talked about giving Johnny choices. Like what shirt to wear in the morning.”

“Don’t give me that BS This is not about his choice of shirts. It’s not his choice to stay up later.” Raina’s crossed foot twirls in irritation. “Up late and he can’t get up for school the next morning. He’s cranky all day. Then we pay.” She uncrosses her leg and slaps her foot onto the floor.

Roy stares at her foot. “Maybe cranky is the price we pay for giving him a choice. You sound like the strict leader of the Mom’s Brigade. Bed at the same time every night! No matter what he’s doing!” Now Roy crosses his legs, too.

In their ninth couples session, Raina and Roy are replaying the fight they had after their guests left on Thanksgiving Day. It’s a week later, and neither can let it go. Why? Is their fight really about Johnny’s bedtime? I wait.

They go back and forth about what choices kids get to make at what age. They agree in principle that he can’t have whatever he wants whenever he wants it. But they can’t agree on a specific bedtime, or a flexible one.

Finally I intervene. “You apparently agree in principle that Johnny should have some choices, but not all the time, especially about important things. So who might be misreading whom?” They both look at me, puzzled. “Go back to how your fight happened on Thanksgiving after your guests left.”

“They left, and I put a few plates into the kitchen sink, then walked back into the living room.” Raina play-acts wiping her hands on a kitchen towel. “Johnnie stands, like frozen, facing the front door--”

Photo by Joy Dryer
She's here. Then gone.
Source: Photo by Joy Dryer

“Yeah, I can see him standing there,” Roy chimes in. “Cousin Laura just left through that front door. They had so much fun. Then gone. She was gone. Yeah. Yeah. He seemed startled. He had this look on his face. This sad, vacant look…”

“All I did was hand him his toy Frog," Raina talks over Roy. “I said ‘Froggie looks so tired. Let’s put him to bed… ’”

“And that’s when he started to wail…” Roy finishes her sentence. “He screamed. He lay on the floor and started to kick his legs.”

“I said, ‘He’s SO overtired. Can you try to pick him up… ?” Raina’s mouth is a tight straight line.

“…and I tried to pick him up. But he accidentally kicked me in the chest.” Roy pauses, remembering. “It’s not like it was a hard kick. But I lost my breath.”

“Yeah, right. Then you yelled at me: ’Just leave him alone!’” Raina’s eyes look piercing under knit eyebrows.

“‘We gotta keep to his bedtime’ you yelled back at me…and ‘couldn’t we ever agree’… blah blah blah. You’re bossy and obnoxious when…when…” Roy searches for the right word. “…when you’re overtired!”

“How dare…!" Raina sputters.

“Ping-pong blaming works on each other," I tell them. "Instead, let’s work on the problem.” I turn to Roy. ”Go back. You lost your breath. What did that feel like?”

Roy pauses. “I don’t think it was so much the kick, but that high-pitched plaintive wail. Like he just lost something precious. I mean, I know he was having so much fun and wanted to continue playing with his cousin. I wonder…maybe we didn’t give him enough warning that it was time for Laura to go…?” Roy stops. “That feeling of the breath kicked outa me…I recall feeling that on my first day of kindergarten. My Mom called at dinnertime and promised she’d be home to tuck me in. I was so excited to tell her how the teacher thanked me for the apple…that my friend Larry was in my class… ”

Roys’ voice falters. “I waited and waited. I must’ve cried myself to sleep. That wailing sound. It feels so familiar.” It takes Roy another minute before he can refocus his gaze on his wife, who’s now listening intently.

“I don’t remember that story…” Raina says more quietly now.

Roy nods. “I just remembered it. Hearing Johnny crying…triggered that tight feeling in my chest. Johnny lost lovely playing moments with Laura. I lost my Mom. I mean, by that age I knew I lost something. Not till later could I name how her meetings were more important than her kids.”

After a few moments, Raina quietly says, “Looks like you were right after all. You knew on some level that Johnny needed flexibility there…some time to process saying bye to his cousin, kinda losing her, ending the lovely day, quieting down.”

Raina leans forward and awkwardly brushes a tear off Roy’s cheek. His look pauses on her face. “I see now.” Roy leans toward her. “When you get angry like that...well, I kinda lose you too.”

Post-Session Note: Roy and Raina have a typical couple’s disagreement about their parenting approach. I am surprised to hear Roy’s association: That kick helps us to focus on Roy’s own longing.

Roy acknowledges experiencing the loss of his Mom’s presence during his early years. His son’s plaintive crying triggers his visceral body remembrance, one of deep longing that he’s buried all these years. Certainly, a good reason to cry. His loss may be deeper than he verbalizes in this session.

  • Note 1: Loss can masquerade as something else. Roy’s memory helps deepen, even reframe, his loss. The first step is to acknowledge loss.
  • Note 2: Remember to compliment Roy on his attunement to his son. And to Raina who notices and compliments Roy also. (It's a self-esteem boost to both.) Such early experience of loss contributes to Roy’s attachment style. Watch for how that in turn will reflect in his relationship with Raina, and his son.
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