A Grateful Goodbye: The Importance of Endings

Old relationships leave a variety of marks. Dark and light, faint and bright, on the surface and below. Some fade quickly, others remain: the wistful, the love sick, the haunting. Endings matter. They impact how you remember past passions, family, and friends of all kinds.

Therapists talk about grieving, but what comes after? Is more yet to learn?

We grieve close-up, but understand at a distance, needful of time’s passage to tally the score and figure what happened. In the brightness and intensity of proximity our emotions get in the way of reason and perspective.

The people who have reappeared as memories in my life sometime took new forms, offered new lessons. One, who lived on a pedestal far too high, became more narcissistic and closer to earth with time. I understood her only after a while. But an old girlfriend is one thing, a parent something else.

Though as a little boy I was “the cream in her coffee,” mom and I lived at odds most of her life. Over time I learned to master the largest part of my animosity, fulfilled my responsibility and visited the folks without incident. She knew I came out of duty more than admiration and said so in her 70s. “You love me, but don’t like me.” I could not deny it.

Age mellowed mom some. The cutting edge of her double-sided compliments was duller, the clever complaints more effortful, less acid. After my 88-year-old dad died in the summer of 2000, mom (81 herself) was desperately unhappy. She’d long since given up on friendship, not wishing to risk closeness. The wounds of her childhood remained unaddressed. Much as Jeanette Stein could be a tough person to deal with, the emotional devastation of an alcoholic father; a paranoid, smothering mother; youthful poverty and teen-aged tuberculosis – these were her most faithful companions. They alone, along with her three sons, represented the only “relationships” left with dad gone.

In the last six-months of her too-long life (she daily prayed to my father and her mother to take her) I visited her every week. Preparation was required. I donned my armor suite, readying for the joust: criticisms aimed at me, the kids, the wife too; none of them present for the “fun” of seeing her again. Mostly I kept quiet, carried on conversation about the TV shows she watched, my brothers’ lives, searching for “safe” topics, and whatever else might pass the minutes with as little incident as possible.

The last time we talked wasn’t a remarkable event. While mom was her usual critical self, at least she was not at her worst. The next week Mrs. Stein didn’t answer the phone call made from the retirement facility’s reception desk. I took the elevator to her room, but no amount of knocking got a response. The facility manager opened her apartment for me. We discovered mom sitting upright with a cooling cup of coffee tableside. She never regained consciousness.

Not an unusual ending, then, but I haven’t told you what happened two weeks before: the second to last time I talked with her. My mother suffered from lots of physical pain even when she escaped invasion by one of her frequent headaches. Not this day. She felt “pretty good” and offered me a lightness of spirit I’d not seen in decades. We laughed. She was at ease. Her cleverness had no ill intent. The time together was an unexpected joy for me, almost a miracle: one of the most extraordinary days in my pretty interesting life. The kind of day you want to capture in a bottle and take home with you; the more poignant and precious because you can’t.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, has described us as having two “selves.” The experiencing self and the remembering self:

The experiencing self is the one that answers the question (say, during a painful event): ‘Does it hurt now?’ The remembering self is the one that answers the question: ‘How was it, on the whole?’ Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living, and the only perspective that we can adopt as we think about our lives is therefore that of the remembering self.

Kahneman continues, “The experiencing self does not have a voice. The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living.”

Yet this is not the whole story, as the psychologist also tells us. If you are having surgery, your memory will be influenced by the “peak-end rule.” Both the extent of pain at its peak and the level of suffering at surgery’s end affect whether you will think back to the procedure as awful or no big deal. A benign ending can transform the experience.

Endings are like boomerangs – they keep returning. Seventeen-years this month have passed since mom died. It has become easier to “live” with her ghost and be more sympathetic to her tragic life. My brothers and I get along better and the family jokes I tell do not have the bitterness of the past.

That last good day lasted just a couple of hours. Not long, but it didn’t need to. Some people get nothing of value when relationships end. The things unsaid remain unsaid on one or both sides; the finish finishes, at best, in discontent, at worst in horror. You think you will have more time and then it’s gone. I was lucky to see my mother once again beautiful and gay, happy and happy with me.

It was not enough for the teen I was once, but by then it was enough for the adult, surely more than I expected or imagined possible.

It will do.


The top photo is my mother as a young woman. The Suit of Armor is from the Carnegie Museum of Art, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Daniel Kahneman quotes can be found in his wonderful book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Getting Over a Breakup: The Role of Love, Hate, and Time


Most of us believe that hate is the opposite of love. Is it really? Both are intense emotions. If love captured you before a breakup, hate indicates a continuing strong attachment to that person even after. Put differently, if you are still angry, you are not “over” him or her. You have not let go. You have not moved on.

To continue feeling either love or hate means that the “relationship” is quite alive, even if it is quite different from what it once was. Perhaps you haven’t seen the person or spoken to him in years. He matters to you, even if it isn’t in a good way. He is living inside of you, playing on your emotions, influencing how you think and what you do; an imaginary companion who might not “know” you exist, but who shadows your existence.

As Edgar Rice Burroughs said:

I loved her. I still love her, though I curse her in my sleep, so nearly one are love and hate, the two most powerful and devastating emotions that control man, nations, life.

If you are really “over” someone else, you are (more or less) indifferent. You simply don’t care any more. You don’t spend any significant amount of time thinking about him or her, recalling either the memories of aching beauty or breaking heart-strings. And when something does remind you of the person, at most you might feel a bit wistful, but certainly not depressed or resentful. No, that individual now matters very little.

How do you get there, get over that lost love? Getting angry is a part of the process, just as allowing yourself the sadness of his loss. Talking to friends, or perhaps a therapist is useful, too. They need only listen to you and provide support, not judgment or advice. Don’t expect to heal quickly, but avoid holding on too long, hoping for love’s return. Don’t make comparisons to what others have gone through. One size doesn’t fit all.

Throwing out photos, old letters, and deleting old voice-mail and electronic messages can help. Don’t lacerate yourself by re-reading the same letters and greeting cards forever. Hold a mock-funeral service if you need to.

A quick return to dating usually doesn’t improve things, since some of your lingering emotions can cause you to become involved with your new acquaintance too deeply, too soon, on the rebound. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you will begin to date but won’t permit yourself to get too close. Before you know it you will be back in a new and probably ill-conceived romance.

Don’t resort to alcohol or other temporary fixes that, in the end, can only make it worse. Don’t distract yourself too much, but do try to be active and get on with life.

Beware of bathing in your sadness. The shower of tears is too painful to endure longer than necessary. Remember that others have suffered in just this way. Do, eventually, get off the cross. We need the wood. It gives us something to build with.

You may have to reevaluate your former love. If you still believe that he was a paragon of virtue and perfection, you’re inclined to think of yourself as unworthy of his affections. If, however, you can see him realistically, you are more likely to recognize that perhaps his loss of you was greater than yours of him, even if he isn’t aware of it. Get a ladder and pull the S.O.B. off the pedestal (in your imagination only)!

Don’t expect vindication, one of the rarest commodities in the world. Waiting for your ex to apologize for not realizing your value is like waiting for next Christmas when you are 10-years-old and the calendar reads December 26th.  It almost never happens and when it does, it is much too late. Moreover, a search for the right words or actions to persuade him to change his mind is a fool’s errand. But then, we are all fools in love.

Although time moves slowly, let time be your friend. You need the tears, so fighting them and controlling them can sometimes be counterproductive, slow recovery down. Most of us survive and learn from these losses. Figure out why you chose this person and take care not to make the same mistake again, especially if you are inclined to put all your relationship eggs in one basket, discovering only after the breakup that you have few friendships to provide you with emotional support.

A breakup is like a mini-death. Treat it that way. Don’t isolate yourself. Remember a time when you felt better and believe that, however impossible it seems now, you will eventually feel better again.

As Oscar Wilde said, since “No man is rich enough to buy back his past,” there is only one direction left to go. Onward.

The top image is called Castle on a Hill by Jimmy McIntyre, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by russavia.

Delivering “Bad News” and Causing Pain: Ending Therapy and Romance


Until recently, I didn’t fully understand the upset of various reality TV stars when they have to “let someone go.”

I am referring to shows like “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” on ABC. These programs offer an attractive single-person the choice of a couple of dozen equally magnetic and youthful members of the opposite sex, with the desired goal of “finding love.”

The settings for these mini-series are always extraordinarily (if not exotically) beautiful, involving story-book activities that prime all the suitors to have strong feelings about the targeted object of their affection, unable to distinguish the dazzle of the surroundings from the more ordinary human qualities of the participants.

As the field of contenders is narrowed, the show’s “star” is typically shown struggling with an ongoing set of decisions: who to “keep” and who to dispatch. Much agony is displayed, sometimes to the point of tears, and not just by the people who are dumped. Indeed, as often as not, the individual making the choices seems more upset than the rejected admirers.

I’ve tended to side with the underdog, that is, the feelings of the soul who is being rejected, cast out of the Eden-like gorgeousness of the show’s locale, and set aside in the pursuit of romantic happiness. And while I appreciate the difficulty of making such choices and delivering the bad news to someone you have gotten to know, I’ve thought that the “star” generally tends to make too much of his or her own pain rather than that of those being rejected.

Recently, however, my own experience has opened my eyes a bit on the subject.

Although it has been a while since I retired from doing psychotherapy, this was written in the midst of telling my patients of my plans to set aside my career as a therapist. And, of course, with it, to set them aside.

I anticipated that it would be difficult for some of them. If the therapy relationship had been productive — if the implied promise was that “I would be there for them (forever)” — it could only be difficult. Therapists should be reliable and, for some people, the contact with a therapist is a life-changing relationship. The patient’s gratitude and reliance on a psychologist’s emotional support, which can become a dependency, are precious in any two people between whom those feelings exist.

I knew objectively and intellectually that the news of my retirement could produce a range of feelings; from disappointment to tears to a sense of abandonment to anger to anxiety and a sense of loss. But I had not done it before; I had not delivered such information. I had not had the task of telling people with whom I had a therapeutic relationship this potentially unsettling news.

Since I had not “lived it,” I could not know fully how it would play out. Still, I had a pretty good idea of how they would feel. I was less certain of how I would feel — what it would be like for me.

It turned out to be more difficult than I expected for myself.

A therapist is in the business of helping people, trying to assist them to feel and live better. Causing pain is just the opposite of what we hope to do. Relieving pain, sympathizing with pain — that is the ticket. Inflicting it is not. I was prepared for their pain, but not ready to be the source of it. And in the weeks before the news was delivered, the anticipation and the stress of becoming, however minimally, the instrument of suffering and disappointment, began to weigh on me.

I thought a good deal about how to deliver the news. I tried to tell all of my patients more than three months ahead of the event, face-to-face; and nearly all of them heard it in the space of the same 10 days. I didn’t want anyone finding out through the grapevine.

I explained that I would continue to see them until my retirement, assuming that they wished to continue. I told them that if they wanted a referral, I would be as helpful as I could be in that process, either before or after the end-date of their last therapy session. And that they would be able to email me thereafter. The way I put it was something like, “I won’t be fully out of your life unless that is what you want me to be.”

I was trying, in this way, to cushion whatever blow they experienced and inoculate them against a personal sense of rejection. For those who expressed interest, I briefly explained how I had come to the decision to leave the practice of psychotherapy.

I made my announcement at the very beginning of each session, in order to permit enough time to deal with the feelings it evoked and questions that might need answering. I also mentioned that I would be fully willing and interested to talk with them about their feelings concerning this change as the therapy process with me moved toward its closure.

Although I doubted that any of my patients were so vulnerable as to decompensate significantly, my plans for our termination were aimed at a break-up that did not lead to a break-down.

Seeing the surprise, disappointment, or pain (including tears) in some of my patients was also painful to me. But I don’t want to make too much of my end of this. In any relationship’s end, it is almost always the person who is making the choice who feels better about the parting. I must admit, it was a relief to have delivered the news, to make public what had been private, to get it behind me. But at no point did I feel good about it.

It brings to mind, I suppose, a very old memory that virtually all of you have experienced at least in some approximate way. It involved a college girlfriend with whom I maintained a long-distance relationship.

Expecting a phone call on her Wednesday return home, one day ahead of Thanksgiving, I called her because that contact hadn’t happen. It turned out that she’d been in town from Sunday or Monday without a word. Still, we made a date to get together the next evening, after the holiday festivities had ended.

As they say, “the handwriting was on the wall.” And, as Adlai Stevenson II once noted, “Most people can’t read the handwriting on the wall until their back is up against it.”


Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt

In the course of that dreadful visit I learned that she now had another relationship back at school and that, of course, she hoped we could remain “friends.” This kind-hearted 19-year-old was in tears as she delivered the bad news, presumably the message that she had hoped to delay or avoid by not contacting me immediately upon her return home.

The “let’s be friends” overture was, I think, quite sincere, but it never is heard the way the person uttering it hopes. In this instance, it sounded something like, “I know you were expecting filet mignon and champagne, but I think I have a half-empty can of warm Pepsi that’s been open on the counter for a few days. How about it?” That said, she was a lovely and sweet-hearted person, and was clearly very much pained by what she was communicating. It was just that our desires didn’t coincide.

That lack of attunement between any two people is simply a part of the human condition. Not the best part, for sure.

Historically, such communications often came by letter during wartime. The “Dear John” letter to a serviceman overseas was widely dreaded and became something of a cliché during World War II, when duty’s potential cost of a soldier’s life or limb could also include a broken heart due to the infidelity of the wife or girlfriend back home.

Today there are lots more ways to deliver the bad news: emailing, texting, instant messaging, etc. All of these are missile-like missives launched from a distance; bad news that the sender doesn’t have to see hitting his target. But the emotional carnage of the unwanted communication is no less real for all that.

It is easy enough to vilify the person who has placed you on his discard pile. And certainly some methods of delivering the rejection are much worse than others, at times cowardly or cruel.

But we mustn’t forget that it is the human dilemma that sets the stage for such disappointments. It is simply a routine part of life that not all relationships find our interests aligned in a mutually satisfying way forever. People retire, therapists and friends leave town, bosses let go of employees, and romance that blooms in the heart of one good person is not always growing in another who is equally kind and decent.

Only the worst among us set out to do injury with malice and premeditation. Nonetheless — much too often, in fact — we are at cross purposes with each other and someone will be hurt.

If it weren’t so excruciating one could almost call it “normal.”

You may be interested in this related topic: How to End Relationships: a Practical Guide to Rejecting Others.

The top image is of the space reserved for Elvis Presley at Heartbreak Hotel, a cottage on Elvis Presley Boulevard. It was photographed by Evelyn Simak on February 3, 2009. The second picture is a reproduction of Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt, sourced from the Web Gallery of Art. Both can be found on Wikimedia Commons.

Near Misses and Near Mrs.


Call him Ishmael.

I saw “Ish,” an old friend and a fellow psychologist, at a party about 15 years ago, when he was about 40. My wife and I arrived late. He introduced us to a couple we didn’t know, but he didn’t look to be himself and left soon thereafter.

Those were the days before the Internet and social media explosions; when you went to a party and learned things about your friends that weren’t available on your computer screen or your phone; before you could easily track the lives of people you hadn’t seen in years.

The next day I met my buddy again and found out the unpublicized details of why he was out of sorts the night before.

“Remember that dark-haired woman I introduced you to yesterday?” asked Ish. “I hadn’t seen her since college. She was the first person I was really in love with.”

“Oh, yes,” I said. “A real beauty.”

Yeah,” replied Ish. “She broke my heart way back when. It was quite a 24 hours — another party, actually.”

It was the summer before my senior year in college. You think Vanessa (the woman’s name) is good-looking now? You should have seen her back then! A shock of prematurely white hair, cut short; pale skin, “bee-stung” lips, very leggy; and a languid way of moving that was hypnotic. She had a swan-like grace, that’s the only way to say it. When I first saw her she was wearing a white bathing suit and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. She dyes her hair now — you can’t imagine how stunning she was.

As I got to know Van, I admired her dedication to her passion — competitive swimming. She enjoyed my sense of humor and we lined up on things musical and political. Both of us were also studying psychology at the time. We seemed to have a lot in common.

But there was this distracted quality about her. I always was trying to get her attention off of whatever else she might be thinking about. She was more compliant with me than enthusiastic about me — along for the ride, but never completely “into me.” When I think about it, I was actually unhappy lots of the time I was with her. She seemed just out of reach, and I was knocking myself out trying to generate some enthusiasm.

Ish related that Vanessa White (her family name had been Weiss back in the old country) was a year younger than he was, went to a different college, and that he had the feeling he was more a “place-holder” than a heart-throb over the summer vacation from college about which he was speaking. Still, he’d hoped that with effort he might make a big enough impression to keep the relationship alive when they both went back to school in late August of that year. The party he was telling me about, in fact, was an end of summer celebration that one of Ish’s friends had planned before everyone returned to campus.

“Van” would leave within a couple of days.

After the party, I drove Van home and we sat and talked in her parents’ living room for a while. But when I tried to pull her close to me, she held back; and then she lowered the boom:

I don’t think we should see each other any more, Ish.

Of course, Ish wanted to know why.

There’s someone else back at school I’ve been thinking a lot about. I don’t know for sure if it’s going to go anywhere, but I don’t think it would be fair to you to make you think there would be a chance for us.

Ish recalled that Vanessa made some comment about “being friends,” but that he’d pushed the idea aside. The conversation with Van continued for a while and Ish remembered that Van shed a few tears.

But then, she actually cried pretty easily on other occasions. She wasn’t an entirely happy person either — very sensitive to a lot of things, including human suffering; unfortunately, not my suffering. No, that’s not fair; more like she wasn’t sensitive to my feelings for her. I guess I would say that she was preoccupied much of the time. I knew she had a really, really good heart, but I could never figure out what was going on inside her head.

At least she didn’t give me the “it’s not you, it’s me” routine. She was painfully honest. It was clear that, for her, it was definitely me.

I remember saying to her that I’d actually thought about a life with her. I tried to make a joke of it — that, she was “Miss White” who just might be “Miss Right.” That made her laugh a little before it made her cry even more. Funny, as devastated as I was, she was the one doing all the weeping. I was mostly just numb; kind of dumbstruck.

Ish recalled leaving “The White House” (as he referred to Van’s home) and getting into his parents’ car in front of her family’s place and just sitting there. Sitting there for a long time, thinking sad thoughts, thinking of what was not to be, including the very vague future life with Vanessa that he’d mentioned to her: the life as “Mrs. Ish.” Or “Mrs. White-Ish.”


Snow White?

Does that make me a dwarf?

Confusing and silly ideas like that popped up as they sometimes do when everything else is going down. Ish realized that he’d never revisit the “White House” or kid Van’s father, Mr. White, about building an “Oval Office.” He’d never again call him “Mr. President” and see his sideways grin in response. Ish knew that he’d miss Van’s mom and dad, who always made him feel very comfortable.

If you’ve been through this kind of break-up, I’m sure you know how peculiar and disturbing it can be.

Surreal and disjointed, not to mention devastating.

One minute you are on the road; the next, you are in a ditch.

But Ish’s tumultuous 24 hours weren’t over.


I was scheduled to go out with my buddy “Starbuck” the next evening. He’d been at the party, too. That summer he worked at the post office. I think he had to get up at about 5:30 AM for his 7:00 shift. And he and his new girlfriend stayed up after the party until it was time for him to take her home, drive back to his house, shower, shave, and go to work.

So, by the time we started out for that night’s White Sox game at Comiskey Park, Starbuck hadn’t slept for about 36 hours. But, he said he felt fine and wanted to drive to the stadium. I was in no mood to argue given how I was doing after getting dumped.

The problem was, by the end of the game he was over 40 hours without sleep. And as we were headed back home down the Dan Ryan Expressway, I noticed that the car was moving into the next lane of traffic. I looked over at him.

STARBUCK!!! I screamed.

His eyes were closed.

I grabbed the steering wheel and jerked it to the right with my right hand, while I shook him with my left. A van blaring its horn flashed by on the driver’s side, narrowly missing Starbuck’s little VW. He pulled over and let me take the wheel. We’d just about gotten killed; what you call a near miss.

Those 24 hours were like that: a near Mrs. and a near miss.

I figured that was the end of the story and Ish did too. But when we next met-up, I discovered that there was more.

“She called me,” said Ish.

“Who called you?”

“Van. Vanessa. She invited me and Arlene (his wife) over to dinner at her house, with her husband and kids. And then we had coffee a few days ago, just Van and me.”

“Go on…”

Well, you know, it was pretty enlightening. Every so often over the years I’d wondered what happened to her, how her life turned out. But this — this I couldn’t have imagined. You see, her husband is a psychologist, like you and me! And when we were out for coffee, she said “I should have given you more of a chance.”

When I asked her about that, she offered that her life now — married to a psychologist — sounded very similar to the life that Arlene has with me. Apparently, at the time we were dating, she imagined a very different kind of life and a very different kind of husband.

Vanessa was looking for someone who was a competitive athlete. She was on the college swim team aiming for the Olympics and fancied that the only kind of guy who would really “get” her had to be someone who understood the world of competitive sports; so I got disqualified pretty much from the start.

But, just between you and me, my lack of confidence in college surely didn’t help. And nothing Van did back then boosted my confidence.

And there’s more. It was interesting to see her interact with her husband and her kids. Of course, she eventually had to go into a professional career and works for a human rights organization. Does really good work. Travels across the ocean. But, at the same time, at the dinner she managed to criticize one of her kids in front of me and Arlene instead of doing it in a way that we wouldn’t have witnessed (and wouldn’t have embarrassed the kid).

And, she winds up being away from her husband and her children for long and pretty frequent periods in connection with her career, something that she said at coffee makes for nagging resentments at home. In fact, Van told me that her husband was a bit pissed-off that she was going to have coffee with me, because he doesn’t get as much time with her as he wants.

“So how do you feel about all that?” I asked.


Well, when I’ve thought about her over the years, I sort of idealized her. I’d never realized how self-involved she was. Before, when we were dating and she seemed distracted I took it exclusively as her lack of interest in me. But, seeing her with her husband and kids — seeing the way she relates to them — I guess this is just part of who she is, a part that hasn’t changed much. And, I guess seeing all of that now takes her off the pedestal I’d erected for her. So the life she had in my imagination, the kind of person I’d remembered her to be, was actually not the same as the flesh and blood person she is.

Now, really for the first time, I can see that things couldn’t possibly have worked out between us. But not for the reasons she’d identified — not for the fact that I wasn’t an elite athlete; it would have killed me to be with someone in a marriage who is as into herself and her work as she is. And, it wouldn’t have been good for any kids we had.

But you know what else? Even with all that, seeing her again stirred me just the way it did the very first time we met. I mean, maybe it’s pheromones or something, but there are just some people you are drawn to, no matter how much your head might tell you not to go there.

Thinking about her now — 20 years later — from the point of view of a clinical psychologist, I realize that sometimes things aren’t as they seem. The judgments you made “way back when” (really, when you were a still kid) aren’t necessarily trustworthy or wise.

Van is a very good, very attractive person and she always was. She means no one harm and does good in the world. But a life with her, the thing I desperately wanted, would have been disastrous for me.

“Sobering,” concluded Ish. “I guess the ‘Van-Ish’ relationship needed to vanish. I would have drowned trying to reach her.”

Then, after maybe 30 seconds silence, came his postscript.

I nearly took a hit from a van on the highway, just after taking a hit from a Van I was in love with.

The near miss could have killed me.

But the near Mrs. would have killed me, for sure.

Isn’t life something?

The top image is of a Young White Whale or Beluga approaching an inflatable (Churchill River near Hudson Bay, Canada) and is the work of Ansgar Walk. The drawing that follows of Captain Ahab is the work of Petesimon. The final image is an Illustration of the Final Chase of Moby Dick, from the 1902 edition of Herman Melville’s famous novel published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1902, drawn by I. W. Taber. All three are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“I’m Still So in Love:” Why We Must Give Up the Ghost


Some patients haunt your memory.

I recall treating a teenager who had lost her father suddenly.  It had actually been many years since he died, but she remained cut-off from the world and her family.

Friends were kept at a distance, her mother was pushed away, and her stepfather was never permitted to come close to her, try us he might.

Never ever.

Her mother and mom’s second husband worried about her self-isolation, so they brought her in to see me.

As the treatment progressed, I discovered that this young woman thought about her father a lot.

Every day.

She would review the memories that she still retained of his kindness and warmth.

Of course, I’d never met him, but I got the sense that she had idealized him — fashioned her memory so as to make him a vision of perfection that no flesh and blood mortal can hope to achieve.

And the recollected reproduction of her father, almost like a ghost, remained the most intimate connection of her life.

Not just historically, but even while I was treating her.

In fact, sometimes she would talk to him; one way, naturally, since she was not psychotic. And that provided her with a kind of closeness that was the best she could do to recreate the comfort that her dad had provided when this young woman was little.

As the protagonist states in Robert Anderson’s play I Never Sang For My Father, sometimes “death ends a life, but not a relationship.”

The people — the real people who reached out to my patient — found her unresponsive. They could not compare — could not compete — with the vanished flawlessness of her dad; an excellence that, after all, probably never existed in the first place, however dedicated and fine a man he might have been.

Moreover, her “relationship” with her father was safe: the dead cannot die on you; or reject you; or move away. They are utterly reliable and totally benign, unlike the rest of us.

As most of us do, my patient had been trying to protect herself from the injuries that life delivers from without, but left unguarded those equally tender places that are open to the wounds that come from within.

When a child loses a parent early on, she often loses the surviving parent, as well.

No, not to death, but to grief. Having lost a spouse, the surviving despondent parent (more often than not) is unavailable to aid the children. She is too bereft herself to be able to be the life-giving, supportive, attentive, omnipresent presence that children sometimes need a parent to be.

Worst of all, it is precisely at this time of loss that the child needs the surviving parent most desperately. And, it is at precisely this time that the remaining parent is least available and least capable of giving what he or she might wish to give, if only he or she could.

The result is a double-loss: one dead parent and another who is, for a time at least, a dead man walking, the half-alive state that we all know from the shock and privation and emptiness of a broken heart; a heart that one cannot imagine will ever heal.

It is no one’s fault, certainly not that of the grieving adult. Rather, this is just one of those dreadful ironies of the human condition: in the moment of loss and for some time after, the now-single parent has no capacity to do what must be done.

But the child needs that impossible thing, all the same.

Once I came to understand that my patient was still in a relationship with her father, her therapeutic needs became clear.

She needed to grieve the loss of her father to a satisfactory conclusion — a grieving that had been prevented by her fear of bringing up her own loss with her mother as much as her mother’s inability to console her child.

She needed to realize that she had put her life on hold by clinging to a ghost who, of course, could only provide so much warmth.

She needed to open herself to a stepfather who longed to engage her, even if he could not be the plaster saint her father had become; and the peers who were ready to provide their own rewards, even if they could not replace her dad.

The therapy worked out well.

My patient did not so much lose her relationship to her deceased father as let him go to a different place in her memory and in her heart.

It helped for her to answer the question, “What would your father want for you if only he could tell you?” Because the only answer he would have given (and she knew this) was that the beloved father of her dreams would want the best for her; and for her to reattach to life and to the people who could give her something that he could not.

After all, he was dead.

And so, she said goodbye to him. At last, she let him die.

So that, finally, she could live.

The photo above is of ectoplasmic mist at Union Cemetary, CT on 10/29/2004 by 2112guy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Of Clocks and Weddings and Getting Cold Feet


It could have happened to you, but it probably didn’t.

The young man was 28 years old and in love with a 21-year-old beauty. His prospects were not great, but he had finally landed a steady job at the Post Office near the end of an economic downturn. Marriage was now possible, his intended said “yes,” and her parents gave their permission.

A marriage license would be required.

They agreed to meet in downtown Chicago at the famous Marshall Field and Company Building, now known as Macy’s. That block-long edifice faces State Street on the west, Randolph on the north, and Washington on the south.

The time was set. From Field’s they would make the short walk to City Hall to get the legal document.

“We’ll meet under the Field’s clock,” he’d said off-handedly and she’d quickly agreed.

The day came and at the appointed time he was there. Right under the clock at Randolph and State as he’d promised.

Only she wasn’t.

What could have happened? Did she get delayed? Was she injured?

Or, just perhaps, did she get cold feet?

Meanwhile, a lovely young woman aged 21 stood at the corner of Washington and State.

And she was thinking to herself, “What happened to Milton? He is always so punctual. Where could he be? I’m standing under the clock just as we agreed.”

You see, a small misunderstanding had occurred. Marshall Field’s had two clocks, one at each State Street corner.

It wasn’t long before one or the other figured things out and walked toward the corner opposite. The meeting occurred, only a little late. The marriage license was obtained and the wedding followed later that year, just as planned.

Both the bride and the groom showed up for that, on time and in the right place.

My parents’ wedding.

How easily it all could have gone wrong, in which case, you wouldn’t be reading this and I wouldn’t have written it, because I never would have been even “a twinkle” in my father’s eye, as he sometimes referred to me.

And my wife couldn’t have married me — a man who didn’t exist. And our kids would never have been born, etc., etc.

Getting “stood up” at weddings is hardly unheard of. Movies have been made about such events. Think Runaway Bride with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.

Then there was the 2005 media circus surrounding Jennifer Carol Wilbanks, who disappeared in order to avoid wedding bells, later falsely stating (in an effort to explain her absence at the alter) that she had been abducted and sexually assaulted.

The worst “real life” tale of this type that I ever heard from someone personally involved in the event concerned a “high society” wedding — one for which no expense had been spared, enormous numbers of people had been invited, and everyone showed up other than the groom, who didn’t even call ahead to cancel or ever apologize to his fiance by letter, e-mail, phone, or text message, and certainly not face-to-face.

And then there is an Internet story of a young man who actually went so far as to go through the wedding ceremony and reception, only to speak to the assembled throng of well-wishers declaring that he intended to get an annulment the next day because of his new wife’s recent sexual escapade with his best man, upon which he pulled out photos of the two that more than verified his report.

Now there are those who would say that “everything happens for a reason,” and that everything turns out well in the end.

I am not one of those people. I believe in accidents, good and bad, which seem to be randomly distributed despite our best efforts to control events.

And, as far as happy endings are concerned, they do happen sometimes, although not everything ends happily.

But, I do believe that you have to make the best of things.

The young woman of the “high society” wedding I mentioned was humiliated and devastated, but did eventually marry a man who loved her to pieces and actually showed up on their wedding day to prove it. They’ve been married forever and continue to be very much in love.

And, it’s hard to argue that the man who promised annulment would have been better off married for more than a day to his unfaithful if temporary spouse.

Let’s hope they both learned something from the experience and went on to find happiness elsewhere.

In the end, especially when you are young, most set-backs are relatively brief, especially if you have some resilience.

Of course, whatever children might have been born of the last two ill-starred matches I’ve described never came to be.

A good thing? Not a good thing?

Did we miss the next baby Beethoven (who was born of a very unhappy marriage)?

I can’t say.

All I know for sure is that I’m glad my folks had enough confidence in their love to stick around, and that one of them walked down the block to find the other.

But for that… well, you know.

One of the two State Street clocks of the old Marshall Field and Company Building in Chicago, now known as Macy’s. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons, photo by DDima.

The Limits of Reason: How to Think about Your Date, Your Boss, Your Mom, etc.


As a therapist, I hear a lot of concerns from my patients about parents, bosses, romantic partners, and so forth. The thoughts often take the form of “Why did he do that?” or “What was he thinking?”

Some of this is worth questioning. In life it is useful to take the role of the other person, to look at things from his or her perspective, to try to “understand” that individual’s motivations and reasoning process.

But, there are limits. Here are just a few that make understanding difficult:

1. People don’t always carefully weigh their decisions before making them. We humans frequently think and act impulsively or emotionally. It can be a bit harder to fathom an ill-considered act than one that is carefully reasoned.

2. The person whose mind you wish to enter may not know himself well at all. When you recall what he says are the reasons for his actions, you need to be aware that he may be fooling himself. Alternatively, he might be dishonest with you, giving you less than a full set of data, trying to prevent himself from looking bad in your eyes, or attempting to protect you from being hurt by the truth.

3. We all act in self-serving ways much of the time. The same person who says that he hates it when someone ends a relationship without explaining why — not even making contact or returning phone calls — might well avoid the discomfort of a final farewell or confrontation himself when he decides that a relationship should end, thereby doing the very thing that has been done to him.

4. Most people, in or out of therapy, are often indirect in expressing their unhappiness with you or their disappointments about your behavior. (Marital conflicts and parents talking to children can be noteworthy exceptions to this general rule). But, in the absence of direct communication, it is difficult to be a good mind reader. Indeed, crystal balls are in short supply whenever I go shopping.

5. When trying to understand others, we look for some form of logic. To seek something that is often missing within the person is a pretty big misunderstanding of how people think and act.

6. You may not have enough history and background information to make an accurate analysis of what drives this individual to do what he does.

7. Do you really know the person well “under the skin?” There is often a mismatch between what is happening on the inside and what is occurring on the outside. Put differently, the contradiction between surface appearances and internal truth often affirms the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

Too much time trying to figure out another person is unproductive. For this reason and those cited above, I encourage my patients to set some limits on the amount of time they spend attempting to get into someone else’s head. At bottom, I think, what most of us are looking for is the understanding that will allow us to return to the relationship and put it right, now that we have found the “answer” to what transpired. Or, something that will console us or produce the closure that we are hoping for at the relationship’s end. By attempting to “understand,” we are frequently seeking a sense of intellectual control, partially to acquire information that will prevent future disappointments, but also to compensate us for our loss and to silence the nagging internal voice that asks “What happened?” and “Did I do something wrong?”

It is better, beyond a certain point, to consider several things about oneself:

a. Why did I choose that person to be with? (Obviously this doesn’t apply to your parents; nor does it always apply to bosses or co-workers).

b. How did it happen that I missed the early warning signs of trouble? Oh, I know that you might think that such signs didn’t exist, but it could be that you ignored them, minimized them, or had a blind-spot for them.

c. Why didn’t I set some limits on the relationship in order to prevent the other person from injuring me? And, if I tried, why did my efforts fail?

d. Why didn’t I leave the relationship earlier?

e. What, if anything, did I contribute to the problems that occurred between my friend/partner/lover/boss and myself?

f. Have I grieved the loss or disappointment fully (including attention to both my sadness and my anger)?

g. What do I have to do differently in order to minimize or avoid problems like this in the future?

Instead of addressing the situation in these ways, with these questions, most of us spend no small amount of time ruminating, and then looking for something we can say to the other person to get them to behave as we wish. With some individuals that is possible, but not with everyone.

Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the baseball color-line is instructive in this regard. As you might know, Robinson and his boss, Branch Rickey, agreed that he would not respond to the abuse from fans, players, and coaches that both expected he would receive when he became the first black man in the 20th century to play in the Major Leagues. But, despite two years of taking every racially demeaning insult known to mid-century white males, he succeeded in playing well. Moreover, by this time there were other blacks in the Major Leagues and a great experiment in civil rights had succeeded.

If the story I’ve heard is true, Robinson and Branch Rickey had a conversation at the beginning of Spring Training at the start of Robinson’s third year with the Brooklyn Dodgers. They agreed that Robinson could now be himself, and fight back with words or fists, if necessary. Soon after, the Dodgers played the Philadelphia Phillies, who did not know that Robinson was no longer on a leash. The middle-aged man from the deep south who coached third base therefore once again began the verbal onslaught that he had performed with impunity for the two previous seasons. Robinson called time and walked over to the third base coaching box.

Remember that Robinson had lettered in four sports at UCLA, including football (as a running back). More than most, he radiated intensity, strength, courage, and intelligence. So it was that Robinson moved within inches of the bigot, looked straight into his eyes, and said: “If you ever say anything to me like that again, I’ll kill you.”

Now, I bring this up not to recommend death threats, but rather to point out that Robinson knew exactly who he was dealing with. He knew this man was not going to be persuaded to behave himself by high-flown verbal eloquence; he knew that spending much time thinking about this man’s character was a waste. What Robinson knew for certain was that there was only one thing he needed to understand about his nemesis (his intolerance) and only one approach that would work:

  • I’m bigger and stronger than you are, so if you don’t stop, I will beat the crap out of you.

Everything changed that day as others quickly realized that Jackie Robinson was not a man who could be insulted any more.

Of course, we all need to spend some time thinking about others and why they do what they do. But, endless rumination on the subject rarely is enlightening or successful in making us feel better.

Some people are like boulders. They are big, hard, insensate, obdurate, and potentially damaging objects. It is essential to see their potential to injure and realize that when you are downhill from such a human bolder, you are in danger.

If you understand how gravity works and get out-of-the-way, that is all you need to know and do — all you can do.

A shame, but true.

The image above is The Thinker by Auguste Rodin.