I’ve heard (so it must be true) that often people become therapists because they have their own unresolved issues. This might explain why over the years every shrink who listened to my babbling and bawling turned out to be more peculiar than me.
And, what is it about bereavement shrinks? To specialize in death must take a dark personality or someone with an unflappable sense of humor.
Here’s what a bereavement shrink once said to me; “Look on the bright side, Carol. Less laundry to do and your toilet paper will last longer!” I never went back. Still, he did have a point of view...
About three months after my husband died I tried a bereavement group. While waiting for the group to begin I refused to make eye contact with the other widows because I hadn’t quite accepted yet that I, too, was a widow. If our sad eyes met it would mean ‘we’re both in this together.’
So I sat by the door with my pocketbook on my lap prepared to bolt if anyone said the word “died.” The sane part of my brain understood that since there was a griever in every hard metal folding chair arranged in a ‘getting to know you’ circle there was a pretty good chance ‘died’ would be on these ladies’ lips. Regardless, in my foggy first year, I was only able to accept, ‘lost’ or ‘passed away.’ ‘Died’ couldn’t possibly apply to my husband.
As I continued to look down at my feet I noticed something. Every single person was wearing ugly shoes. Yes, I practically sang to myself. I’m still here! Bitchy me criticizing people’s footwear!
I left before the leader made us all introduce ourselves and tell our horrible stories. Why stay? There would be no happy ending in this room and I was relieved that I could still poke fun and laugh.
The pre-group had done the trick. I was ‘cured.’ I sped away and I did what any happy-go-lucky widow would do. I went to Starbucks to celebrate with a Carmel Frappuccino.
The next day I was back to sitting on the floor of our closet jabbering to Jimmy. For hours, I’d tell him every little thing I was doing and feeling. I only stopped my chatter to him when I dozed off. Wrapped in his Giant’s sweatshirt we both rested in peace.
My friends gently suggested that even though Jimmy was always available I may need someone to talk to who could talk back.
They assured me that if I saw a shrink I could still visit my husband in the closet. They understood that it was familiar and certainly convenient, even better than the cemetery. I didn’t have to get dressed, drive over or bring flowers.
Jean, a one-on-one bereavement therapist came highly recommended. I liked that my sessions were private. No one would be sizing up my loss and comparing my pain to theirs. Best of all; I wouldn’t have to pretend to listen to the other widows whining and carrying on. It was all about me!
Jean’s couch was much more comfortable than those hard metal folding chairs and there was space in the corner of the room if I needed to curl up and suck my thumb.
First snag – Session one taught me that Jean meant business and they’re be no curling and thumb sucking and being poor widow me.
I nicknamed her ‘Mean Jean’ because she was.
I told my friends, “She must have studied at the Snap-Out-of-It school of shrinks. She made me nervous but her words always sunk in.
She told me “when widows want to remarry many go to the cemetery to ask permission. I nodded my head. “I can understand that,” I said.
Mean Jean lifted one eyebrow sarcastically. “Really?” she replied. “It makes sense to you to ask a dead man’s permission for something?”
“Well, I figure that...” I stammered.
“Just for the record,” she said, “None of the husbands ever say no.”
MJ reminded me that men remarry on average two years and for women it’s five years. “This is because men are babies. When I retire I’m going to write a book called, “Don’t Flatter Yourselves, Ladies...Men Just Can’t Be Alone.”
Why did I stay? Every so often she softened, stopped rolling her eyes and gave me a crucial analogy. She said to think of my family like a boat. The captain has fallen overboard and has drowned.
Me, the first mate is to step up to the helm, (not the son which often happens if you let it) and not the son-in-law because he’s the son-in-law and could be digitally removed from all photos and replaced with a plant.
She insisted I take the helm, but she also gave me permission to treat myself kindly and steer slowly.
Jean told me about the thousands of widows she has seen over the years and how different each person grieves. I told her I feel like Jimmy just disappeared and shouldn’t I accept this by now? (8 months)
She explained that there is barely a memory that he’s not starring in and each day for decades was ours and I looked ahead to a future with him in it. Eight months is a blimp on the screen. Nice, MJ.
At about year 2, still seeing Mean Jean, I began to scan the dating sites and since I like to shop on line it was a perfect way to look and not touch.
One of the last and most meaningful sessions I had with Mean Jean was when she told me, “When you start dating, Carol, you’ll emotionally be 18 again because you’ll pick up where you left off when you were last dating.”
The truth of that jumped out at me and I panicked. I would be in an almost 60 year old body with the immature head of a teenager. The picture was clear. I wouldn’t need a bat to swat away suitors.
True or not, her matter-of-fact tone was infuriating.
“Come on. I’m 57 years old. I’ve been in the world interacting with people all this time. And, I know for a fact that people think I’m funny. Men like funny!”
“Apples and oranges, sweetie-pie, when it comes to seducing and being seduced. Flirting’s an art. And, did you ever stop to think that when a man says he’s looking for a woman with a sense of humor, he might mean someone to laugh at his jokes?”
Turns out, thankfully, that Mean Jean was wrong about that, in my case, anyway. I found a man who loves my sense of humor, finds my immaturity “charming” and if I turn the lights down low, this man in his sixties only gets a shadowy glimpse of my 60-something body.
Thank you, MJ for reassuring me that someday instead of babbling to Jimmy in the closet I’ll be sharing it with another man.