“Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.”
– Norman Cousins,
“She was really angry at herself…”
Betty was a no nonsense, fifty two year old, nurse supervisor working in an addiction clinic in a large city. She was married with three adult children…William, Katrina and Cecilia, who was deceased the previous year…by suicide. Betty’s husband, Jim, was retired from the military and keeping their home functioning while Betty worked full time.
Betty had, what some would call, ‘an attitude.’ In other words Betty was angry! The trick for her was to decide who she was angry at today…at this precise moment! At one point or another, she had targeted most of the people in her personal and professional life. The only exceptions, at least so far, were her two grandchildren, Katrina’s kids, which she considered, angels.
But Betty was tired of venting at those around her…a part of her had been aware for some time she was really angry at herself. But she didn’t know if she was ready to handle the truth of her life. Now, her anger was showing up at work with a formal complaint of harassment, lodged by one of her new staff.
Who would say you were pretending to be OK…
When we first started talking her focus was how much she hated her work, her inept colleagues or how she needed a new career. Betty said she was tired of her patients making excuses for their addictions…she was tired of them avoiding the unresolved baggage from their past, usually with one of their parents.
I asked her why she chose addictions in her nursing career. She said she used to love the work…the way she got to see people get control of their life…it inspired her, like no other form of nursing. But now, she was disenchanted with it all…too many repeat patients over the years…too many people, pretending to be OK, when they weren’t.
It was then that I asked Betty, “Who would say you were pretending to be OK when you aren’t Betty?”
She was stunned by the question! It was as if I had hit her with a board. She did a double take…looking at me, and then away, and then, back at me again.
Then I added, “Who would say you were avoiding the unresolved baggage of your past, Betty?”
Then Betty jumped up from her chair, as if to go to the door. But, just as suddenly, she sat down again and burst into tears, covering her face in her hands.
I am in the business…I should have known!
As she cried softly but deeply, I said, “Betty, whatever we judge outside of us, is just a part of us, we are denying, inside of us. We are all mirrors for each other, so we can learn!”
Then, while she was wiping her sniffles and composing herself, I added, “Crying usually means something is very important to us! What is really bugging you much more than your work Betty?”
“I am so good at observing addicts and guessing if they will go back to their addiction…I can tell by listening to them talk, watching them deal with the program we offer, even by the jokes they make! How could I miss the signs from my own daughter she was in turmoil and considering suicide…how could any mother miss that?” she said, sobbing again.
“Tell me about your daughter Betty. How old was she when she took her own life?” I asked her gently.
She took a few moments to regain her composure and then looked me in the eye,
“Cecilia was 24 years old and in university in Montreal…studying music. She was in her last year and had planned to teach. She had a boyfriend, they had been together three years, and then they broke up during her midterm exams. She overdosed on booze and street drugs. I didn’t even know she used drugs, and Ken, I am in the business…I should have known!”
“That must have been very traumatic for both you and your family! How did you manage to get through it?” I asked her.
I failed…I failed miserably!
“Ken, it was hell on wheels for a long time…but somehow we managed. Her brother and sister are doing the best…they seem to have bounced back OK! But her father and I still have our days when we struggle to get out of bed in the morning.” she replied, the pain consuming her entire face again.
“Betty, you are an experienced professional, can you see how suicide is always about personal power…suicide is a perception of powerlessness, a hopelessness, helplessness or uselessness about some part of life and going for the only power the person can see at that moment…the power to leave their life behind?”
“Yes I understand that part Ken…I understand how she could have felt lost and alone when her boyfriend, Todd, ended their relationship. But what I don’t get was why she didn’t call us, didn’t let us know what had happened to her…didn’t come to us for support. That’s what eats at me, even now!”
“So you’re confused by her not reaching out to her family when her boyfriend ended their relationship…is that where your thoughts have gone since it happened?” I asked.
“Yes I am confused and angry…it is a parent’s job to protect their children and I failed…I failed miserably!” she said the anguish resurfacing on her tired face.
They have to learn to protect themselves…that’s their journey in life!
“So you have been going around for a long time thinking you could protect your children from the pain and hurts of life…?” I paused after saying this, giving her time to mull over my comment.
She stared at her hands deep in thought. Then she looked up with an angry demeanor, “Are you suggesting it is not our job to protect them?”
“Betty, I’m suggesting we really can’t protect our children from life’s up and downs. When they are newborns and toddlers we can protect them from some of the physical dangers like hot stoves and traffic…but eventually they have to learn to protect themselves…that’s their journey in life!”
“Well I blew it somewhere along the line…that’s for sure!” she said emphatically.
“From what you have told me about Cecilia it sounds like she was doing quite well in most areas of her life, and that, you and Jim, had done a good job of raising her. She was in school finishing up her degree and had a career plan in place. She had been in a long term relationship. Sounds like lots of things were going OK with her.” I offered.
“That’s just it Ken…we thought so too! It is like we missed something! But, I just don’t know what is was…and it drives me crazy at times.”
“What if it wasn’t about you missing something…what if, it was about you learning something vital for your future?” I said gently.
“I don’t know what you mean Ken…what could I possibly need to learn from my daughter’s death that would benefit my future…that sounds crazy to me!”
“Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature’s delight.”
– Marcus Aurelius, philosopher
I think it’s that time…
“Betty, what I’ve learned is there are no mistakes…every event, even our tragedies, have a role to play in our life, in our evolution as people. I cannot tell you what it is you can learn from Cecilia’s passing. But it has been my experience, everyone’s life and death, serves those around them in important ways. But, each person must find their own learning to enable them to honor the person who has passed and to enable them to move on, with their own life.”
“If that were true Ken and I could find out what I am supposed to learn…it might help me let go of our family’s tragedy…wouldn’t it?” she asked.
“Do you want some help to look for it?” I asked in a quiet, careful voice.
Betty looked at me for a second, and then said succinctly, “I think it’s that time, Ken!”
“Well, let’s go to the moment you learned Cecilia had died. Where were you when you found out? How did you find out?” I asked.
“Ken, it was really strange. Jim and I were at home watching television. Todd, the boy she broke up with, called to tell us what happened. The police had called him. He was in shock, blubbering, crying and apologizing, all at the same time. At first, we weren’t sure what he was even talking about. It was all so confusing. I had taken the call initially and then, when I got upset, Jim got on the phone and got the details of what had happened.”
“Betty, I want you to remember carefully the exact moment when you realized Cecilia was dead. What did you do at that moment?” I asked her carefully knowing this was a tough question to ask any mother.
I am going to tell you, but, it’s going to sound weird!
Betty said,”I remember sitting down on the couch because I had been standing up. I sat down on the couch, put my face in my hands and just cried and cried and cried!”
“At that second Betty, what went through your mind, knowing Cecilia was gone?”
“Ken, I remember clearly what went through my mind…but I’m embarrassed to tell you!” she replied, the guilt spreading across her face.
“Betty, remember what I mentioned earlier about how tragedies help us learn important things…I’m wondering if whatever went through your head is connected to what you are supposed to learn from Cecilia’s passing.”
She stared at me again for a long moment, then she said, “OK…I am going to tell you but it’s going to sound weird!”
“That’s OK Betty!”
“Ken, I remember thinking I still have two other children to love!…Isn’t that an awful thing to think when one of your children has died?”
To notice the others they also love..
“Betty…not at all! It been my experience this is a very common reaction to a dramatic loss of someone you love!”
“Really…you not just being kind, are you?”
“Betty, it is quite natural, and also quite logical, for a person who has lost a loved one to notice the others they also love who are still with them. It is an important coping strategy to help us deal with a significant loss. What I am wondering about is why was it so important for you to adopt this coping strategy at the news of Cecilia’s passing?”
“I don’t know Ken…but, as I think about it now, Cecilia’s passing was a catalyst for me to evaluate several things in my own life. I remember at one point during the the wake, watching her brother and sister comfort some of her upset friends, and realizing I need to give them more of my time. I also remember at her funeral realizing I worked too damn much. And even Jim, …we really haven’t spent much time with each other since he left the military.”
“It sounds like Cecilia’s passing has given you the opportunity to appreciate and make time for other important people. Why was that so valuable to you now at this point in your life Betty? I am wondering why you and why now?”
Her death has given me back my own life…
Her eyes watered briefly when she said, “I think I know the answer to that Ken! I’m really burnt out, I need to do something else…something with a new challenge in it! I have known this for a while but I have been trying to ignore it…that’s been my real frustration. I think Cecilia’s death brought that right to the front of my face and I had to deal with it. In a way I owe Cecilia for that…her death is helping me to get control of my own life…it is ironic in a way…her death has given me back my own life…does that sound crazy?”
“Not to me! And I think it might even please Cecilia if she could know that…her passing served her Mom, and probably even her own family, in special ways.”
“Ken, it is interesting you should say because I have thought at times, since her passing, Cecilia would be proud of how we have dealt with her death…how we have come together to be a closer and stronger family. That was always something she valued.”
Went into palliative care and found it very satisfying…
Betty went on to process her grief in more detail so she could understand how this event served her and her family. She said, near the end of our work, it was remarkable how her family had become so much more close and resilient. She eventually went into palliative care and found it very satisfying. Her son William moved back to their hometown to work and their daughter Katrina is now in regular contact with her parents…a new initiative on her part as a busy mother.
While every family loses members and we all know it is going to happen, we often think it shouldn’t or won’t happen to us…to our family. Once we see how it serves, each and every member of the family in a special way, it enables us to grieve the passing and honor the memory of our loved one. So we can all take comfort in knowing our own passing, whenever it occurs, will serve others.
“There is no loss without an equal gain, it is a law of nature, we need only to look for it!”
– King Ayles, author
Until Next time…
Given the interest from our subscribers we have extended our theme of ANXIETY, WORRY & STRESS into August as well. We have now dealt with three of the seven forms: spiritual and mental and vocational (today’s topic). Still to come are financial next and then social, familial and physical. Remember to send us your feedback and monthly theme suggestions…we love to hear from you! If you have a specific question about dealing with the worrying, anxiety or stress contact me.
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of those depths.”
– Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, psychiatrist
POINTS TO PONDER AND REMEMBER are:
- Vocational stress can often be a cover up of other pressing issues in your life.
- Vocational anxiety often impacts your entire life, not just your work.
- Anger at others is usually masked anger at yourself.
- You can’t really protect others, they must learn to protect themselves.
- Every loss in your past enables you to learn important things for your future.
- Your family will lose members and it will serve each remaining member.
- You need to constantly learn so will need to change your forms of work regularly.
Further information: www.kenpiercepsychologist.com