I am writing you to ask if you might have a recommendation for my friend. His wife died suddenly last September at 53 years old, and it has been a hard year for him. He knows that he is struggling with depression but wants no medication. He has had some counseling but doesn’t feel that anyone can be there 24/7. He’s thought of “how easy it would be to … ” but says he will not harm himself, no matter what. He loves his girls too much. And he knows what it would do to them.
Tonight he shared with me that his greatest struggle this past year and the thing that keeps him depressed is being there for his daughters. He loves them with an incredible father’s love. But his struggle – his greatest hardship – the thing that hurts the most in all this is seeing his dead wife when he looks at his girls. He wants to be there for them, but at the same time, avoid them because they are (together his wife), in looks, in actions, in voice, in mannerisms, etc. He will not give up being around them, but it is really hard on him. He sees the girls two or three times a week each.
What do you do when the people you love more than anything remind you of your greatest loss? — D.M., Las Vegas
What do you do? You stop being surprised that the people you love more than anything remind you of your greatest loss. And the reason you stop being surprised is that you realize – or some advocate gently, firmly, sometimes fiercely insists you realize – that the whole equation is specious. A bill of goods. An eddy of illusion. A banality that your aching heart and exhausted brain have turned into some unique dilemma.
It’s not a unique dilemma. Because the people we love most in the world won’t merely remind us of our greatest loss. The people we love the most inevitably are our greatest loss. That’s the contract we sign when we agree to love at all.
I’m saying that someone needs to “reframe” the dialogue for him. He might as well be saying that he doesn’t want to go outside because every time he does, gravity reminds him he has mass.
I would say to this man that, had he and his wife remained childless, his grief would “arc” to something else. Other things would be bringing her absence into ghastly focus. He’d be avoiding a certain brand of green beans, perhaps. Or standing out front of some restaurant, noticing that his feet were dragging to enter. Or dodging the invitation of some couple reaching out to him in love and comfort.
This is what grief does. This is its nature. Grief spontaneously attaches itself to some context. Some circumstance. Some narrative. Grief dramatizes itself.
I would tell him, first, to notice how this experience is in no way unique to his daughters. I would tell him to notice how, in this first year of mourning, anything and everything can and does amplify and illuminate the ragged emptiness of grief.
See, if we could help him broaden the problem – in a sense, if we could first make it worse – then perhaps he could hear and see another, equally banal reality: What do you do when the people you love the most remind you of your greatest love? What do you do when the people you love the most remind you of the best thing you ever did?
I would draw for him an analogy. I would tell him that he reminds me of spouses, parents and siblings whose spouse, parent or sibling has died in an accident. The eyes of the deceased are harvested and donated to a grateful transplant patient. And sometimes you see on a television magazine the story of how the grieving family will ask and desire to meet the transplant patient. They will stand, trembling, as their beloved’s eyes stare back at them, now in service to a stranger … who can never again be a stranger.
In the same moment, the grief of these people is bled and bandaged. There is, at once, the rude awakening of emptiness and an awakening of deep gratitude and pride.
I would tell this man to stand before his daughters just like that. To allow himself to be in awe before the mystery of what his love accomplished: “And the two shall become One Flesh … ”
And then I would remind him that not all counselors have particular specialties or trainings in acute bereavement. I would urge him not to give up on the support that is available to him.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.