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.
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.
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.