Being Present with the Bereaved

To be present to those grieving often brings up feelings of helplessness similar to those experienced when around the dying.  Often this helplessness is experienced as not knowing what to say or do.

People often assign a timetable to grieving and make assumptions as to how long each phase should last.  In fact, everyone has their own experience; the time taken to grieve varies between individuals. Unfortunately, many of the grieving find themselves judged if their grieving doesn’t match some particular schedule.  Grief is not linear and doesn’t follow any predictable trajectory.

Grieving is always a subjective experience. To aid the grieving, there is no necessity for articulation, platitudes or suggestions. It is, rather, simply being there and being present to the grieving individual that is truly therapeutic.  There’s great value in listening to the person and following their lead. In this way, we can demonstrate genuine empathy.

The grieving often find that the hardest part comes after an initial period in which they seem to run on automatic, experience life as surreal, and are surrounded by people. However, once the shock recedes and others go back to their routines, the bereaved are thrust back into their lives — but nothing is the same.  They are left grieving in a world which functions as it always has and are left alone to mourn, a solitary process that often ends in deep feelings of isolation from what has irrevocably changed.

Sometimes grief develops into what is called “complicated grief”.  Complicated grief is associated with self-destructive tendencies and an inability to process grief.  It can be very difficult to identify complicated grief because the process of grieving is different for all of us.  How do we etablish when grief limits our sense of well-being and our ability to function? When can unhealthy grief be distinguished from a healthy grieving process? Even health care professionals who may have experience working with bereavement have trouble answering these questions.

Typically the first year of bereavement is the most difficult.  As one adjust to the loss of the loved one, an incessant array of holidays, seasons and anniversaries present themselves and can trigger anew the magnitude of the loss.  One never goes back to life with the loved one, but, instead, must establish a new “normal”. This adjustment often brings up intense emotions of resistance, anger, isolation, depression, and denial.  These emotions are appropriate as one moves through the pain of loss and must never be judged.  It is only when the grieving becomes “complicated” and self-destructive that we need to address it.  However, complicated grief is difficult to assess and must be approached with great care.

As I have worked with those who mourn, I’ve become aware that it can be very helpful for them to be around those who have similar experiences.  Bereavement and support groups can provide such support.  At times, however, there is great resistance to this support since the grieving often feel that their experience is worse than that of others and is singular in a way that others are incapable of understanding.  Often this resistance is so profound that it leaves the bereaved even more isolated.  I have seen, though, that while those grieving may exhibit resistance to those with similar experiences, they end up finding this support helpful, meaningful, and therapeutic.

While the first year of mourning is the most difficult, later in life certain triggers may remind one of the pain with almost overwhelming intensity.  Grief never really ends — one merely adapts to life anew.  The pain of grief recedes until it presents itself, at times out of nowhere, for a short period of time.  It is important to respect the adaptability and the periodic pain that memory triggers.

Death and bereavement are part of life. We need to experience them with all our feelings and let those in pain know that we support them without judgement.

Being Present with the Dying: Emotionally

Because of deep fears about death and our own mortality, it can be difficult to be authentically present with those who are dying.  When we’re not keenly present, we create an uncomfortable distance between ourselves and the person dying.  Platitudes such as “You never know, maybe you’ll get better” or “Don’t talk like that” only pull us away such that without meaning to, we limit the relationship between ourselves and those leaving us.

Having worked for two decades with those confronting serious illness and death, I have come to realize that the needs of the dying and their caregivers are never predictable.  I have learned to follow their lead in lieu of following an agenda that I deem important.  And while I make suggestions about the end of life, I have learned to respect whatever response I get.  Being fully present to those who are dying requires diligence, as it is imperative to avoid judgment.  At times I have encountered denial, which I have learned to respect while gently suggesting or informing.  At other times, I may end up sitting with someone who wants to talk or rage or sob.  In these instances, I follow their lead and validate their feelings.  It’s also important to be tuned into one’s own discomfort so as not to act on it and work it through at another time.

When working with the dying, it’s useful to ask oneself the question “Whose needs and agenda am I here for, mine or the person dying?”  This may lead to discomfort, discomfort that must gently be set aside so that we can address the needs of the dying.

We all die alone.  Until that moment, we are connected to the people around us, people we love and care about.  If, as caregivers, we allow our discomfort to impose itself and get in the way, we may lose the opportunity to be with those we care about at a time when we are most needed.

Like most people, I become frightened when I think of my own death. When I focus on it, I fear the unknown and anticipate the loss of my ego.  Fortunately, these thoughts and feelings recede during the hectic process of living my life.  But when I’ve been confronted with the death of those in my care or in my personal life, I often must deal with my own issues.  I found, however, that as I worked with patients and loved ones and learned to set aside my own fears and anxieties, that I became less afraid.

I have also found that being fully present and engaged with the dying limits the regret and guilt that so often is a part of bereavement.  By being conscious of our own fears and needs, and by setting them aside as someone experiences the end of life, we experience less of a rupture when the physical bond, our sharing of life, is broken.

Because the experience of dying is solitary, it can be overwhelmingly isolating.  We can, however, foster intimacy by empathizing and being present to whatever the dying person is experiencing or expressing, be it anger, depression, fear, denial, hope, hopelessness, acceptance, peace, etc.  When we achieve this, we can help whomever we are caring for feel less alone.

It is often difficult to avoid acting out our own fears while being fully present to the dying.  While we all die and die differently, most of us deny death in a million different ways.  Without this, we would be overwhelmed with fear and anxiety.  By being attuned to the dying and responding to their needs instead of trying to appease our own needs and feelings, we enrich the relationship with those who are leaving us.  We owe ourselves and the people in our lives an environment in which they can reach the end of their lives in as rich a way as possible.

Being Present with the Dying: Hospice and Palliative Care

Palliative care is often misunderstood – generally thought of as only appropriate for end of life care.  The purpose of palliative care is to relieve symptoms, comfortably and holistically, at any stage of illness regardless of the prognosis.  Hospice – a subject often avoided – is designed for end of life care.  Hospice provides the utmost care, concern, empathy and support.  Both programs are invaluable for the achievement of ultimate comfort – addressing the physical, emotional and spiritual facets of those in their care.

Palliative care is meant for people with serious illnesses.  It addresses symptom, stress and pain relief to achieve optimum quality of life.  Although palliative care is often thought of for the dying or for those who have forgone further treatment, it can be beneficial at any stage of illness.  Palliative care uses a holistic approach to illness and coordinates physicians, nurses, social workers, therapists and chaplains who address the physical, emotional, psychosocial and spiritual needs of those dealing with a difficult illness.  Palliative care can benefit people during any stage of an illness, be it chronic or acute.  Some palliative care programs have teams who work with patients while they are in the hospital; others take place in a clinic setting.

The notion of hospice is fraught with fear, a fear that no doubt stems from the fear of death itself, a taboo subject in American culture.  Even those who are healthy, for whom death is abstract, have difficulty broaching the subject and avoid preparations for serious or even fatal illness.  To address the subject while already traumatized by illness is even more fraught and uncomfortable.  When we enter a hospice program, we acknowledge that the end of life is approaching and curative treatment options have been exhausted. One criterion for admittance to a hospice program requires a six month prognosis of mortality from a physician.  Giving up on treatment and the possibility of a cure, and instead focusing on end of life comfort, can be very difficult to accept.

Hospice focuses on comfort care and addresses the whole person – physically, mentally, and spiritually – with teams of doctors, nurses, social workers, therapists, and chaplains.  Having worked in hospice programs for many years, I’ve seen patients and their loved ones find the experience deeply comforting.

While most of us think of hospice as a facility one goes to die, this definition is limited and exacerbates are deepest fears.  A more enlightened way of describing hospice is that of a holistic support program for significant others and for patients who have exhausted curative treatment.  While hospice programs in general disallow aggressive treatments, they encourage treatments that provide comfort, including at times chemotherapy and antibiotics.  Comfort is the paramount goal of care.  Perhaps most importantly, hospice is not limited to inpatient facilities.  Those health care professionals who are available inpatient are also available to people in their home.  These home hospice programs create the same environment of caring and commitment that is found in an inpatient setting.  In addition to providing services at home, home hospice programs provide the same support wherever the patient is settled, including in a facility such as a nursing home.  Those working in hospice programs are willing to work with any facility where they can offer support to the staff and oversee patient care, making sure the comfort and needs of the patient and their loved ones are met.  This provides greatly to the comfort of significant others who are otherwise at the mercy of the facility culture.

Hospice programs are flexible and work with the patient and their loved ones in any way they can.  They are generally covered by private insurance, Medicare and Medicaid.  People who live longer than the hospice required prognosis of six months can be discharged and reinstated as the need arises.  Hopefully the concept of hospice care will become more familiar and commonly used such that the fear and avoidance associated with hospice lessen.  This familiarity will enhance and deepen our empathy and our understanding of end of life care and, in turn, our appreciation and mindfulness of living.  I will write about the emotional aspects at the end of life in a future blog post.

When is Silence Golden?

Silence can be very difficult to tolerate for both the analyst and the patient.  In fact, because so many patients want an active and engaged therapist, I often fear that protracted silences may even drive the patient away and out of therapy.  While ongoing silences can be rich in psychic material, I have found that silences are often misunderstood.  And unless the patient has an understanding of how therapy works, silences are not particularly useful.  It’s essential to initiate patients to the therapeutic process by first establishing a safe and empathetic environment that gradually allows them to tolerate longer silences.

Difficulties with silence are not the patient’s alone.  I struggle with longer silences as my reflex is to intervene with a question or statement to alleviate my patients’ (and my own) anxiety.  Because of my discomfort, my impulse is to replace the silence with action.  An important part of the therapeutic process is figuring out whose feelings are whose and when to break the silence.  It’s essential, of course, that I don’t break the silence out of my own anxiety, but only when the patient’s anxiety is becoming unbearable for him or her, not for me. Intervention at an inappropriate moment can interfere with the patient experiencing feelings that need to be experienced.  At other times, a question or statement that breaks the silence helps the patient feel more secure in the room.

In classical analysis, silence is an essential tool.  The classic theory is that the patient should lead the treatment; if the patient is silent, the therapist waits for him or her to engage.  While this approach is clearly valid, many patients find it helpful if, at times, the analyst leads.  But with the analyst leading, there is of course the danger that the treatment will follow the therapist’s agenda and not that of the patient.

It also makes a difference if the patient is lying down on the couch or is sitting in the chair, facing me. Invariably, those who lie on the couch find it easier to endure silence.

A couple of examples illustrate this dilemma:

I had a patient, a man I had seen for many years, who came in one session, lay down on the couch, and remain silent throughout the whole session.  I struggled silently with whether to intervene, at what point, and whose anxiety was whose.  I decided to let silence reign and not let the anxiety — which was no doubt at least partly mine — compel me to action.  At the end of the session, my patient sat up.  He then thanked me for allowing him the space to sit with him without verbalizing.  He said that he really needed that time to just be.  I was happy that I didn’t succumb to my own discomfort and ask a question or give an interpretation.

A patient I’ve been seeing for a number of years comes into each session with nothing to talk about.  He depends on me to ask questions and even after years of treatment, is very resistant to bringing in material for us to explore.  He is someone who cannot access his feelings and for whom unconscious resistance has thwarted his treatment.  After a long period, I decided to allow him his resistance and accept his need for me to elicit details of his week.  Since he cannot access his feelings, exploring occasional silences has been fruitless.  He needs me to check in with him to ground him and prevent him from fleeing as a result of his unconscious resistance.  As I tailor each treatment to the needs of the patient and the dynamics of the dyad, I accept my more active role with this patient because the circumstances clearly warrant it.

Protracted silences present a dilemma for the analyst.  I often explore these silences and the non-verbal feelings they induce.  Such exploration allows me to discover vital information about the patient.  On the other hand, when silence is intolerable for the patient, I learned to respect this and offer action that helps the patient feel safe and secure.

A Political Dilemma

What happens when a patient expresses a feeling or opinion that induces strong counter-transferential feelings in an analyst with passionate political opinions and views? The classical viewpoint, of course, is to keep such thoughts to one’s self. But what happens when the patient exhibits attitudes that are clearly prejudicial and at times even abhorrent to the analyst?

Following the old adage that the personal is indeed political, I am proud of my activism — albeit with age it’s more verbal than active — but at the same time I am committed to creating a safe and empathic environment for my patients.

As an analyst, my role is not to educate about politics or to explore prejudice even if what I hear is hostile bigotry. Yet, when I am confronted with thinking that I find offensive or culturally dangerous (albeit only verbal), my emotional response is the same as it would be outside the office. Do I remain silent? Will my own need for exploration represent my agenda rather than that of my patient? And how do I prevent such thinking from influencing my view of that patient?

Fortunately I am not confronted with this dilemma often. When it has happened, I have remained silent and let myself be with my counter-transferential feelings. But this does leave me wondering as to what might be a helpful and ethical intervention.

A patient of mine had consistently expressed his dislike of lesbians. When he was particularly angry, he referred to them as “cunts.” Since I’m very sensitive to sexism, the use of that word left me bristling. Because I continually remind patients that I want to hear all their feelings, I never responded. But I did struggle silently with whether to explore his animosity (my own agenda) or continually listen as he expressed his anger. Although we often worked on his anger issues, when he used that word I ultimately held and respected his feelings with silence. I often wondered if there would come a point when I might lead my patient to explore his prejudicial views. That time never came.

Many years ago I had a patient who was conservative politically and had no patience, sympathy, or understanding of minorities’ position in society. At one point he referred to Hitler as a great man. I asked him what he meant by that and he referred to Hitler’s power. I did not go any further with the comment, thinking that to do so may feel to him like an attack. Nothing else was said by this patient during the time I saw him that would allude again to the Hitler comment. That comment still haunts me all these years later. I often wonder if and how I might have responded differently to hearing something so abhorrent.

While these are extreme examples, there have been many subtler examples that contribute to this same dilemma. I wonder how much of my commitment to bettering society might extend to my one-on-one relationships with patients. Although I always err on the side of caution, I continually wrestle with how my silence as a therapist ultimately conflicts with my passionate political commitment to affect change.

My Analytic Dilemma

Few issues stir up more emotion than those revolving around HIV/AIDS.  While the face of the disease has changed radically in the U.S., sero-conversion to HIV+ is not as rare as it should be.  While my own views are no doubt colored by 3 decades of working with people with HIV/AIDS, I can be particularly blunt when confronted with a patient who is practicing unsafe sex.

Even though I always express thoughts with care and concern, my directness runs countercurrent to much of what I’ve been taught — that the expression of opinion should be kept out of the treatment.  However, when dealing with HIV and AIDS, my concern for my patients’ physical wellbeing trumps my training.

An HIV+ patient was frequenting sex clubs and not always practicing safe sex.  He justified this by assuming everyone else who didn’t practice safe sex was HIV+ or didn’t care.  When I probed a little deeper, it became clear that he mostly feared stigma and rejection.  My patient claimed that it was the equal responsibility of the other person to inquire about or divulge HIV status.  He stated that his partners bear the ultimate responsibility for their own actions.  After continuing to press the subject, I let go of my reservations and made clear the importance of self-disclosure for keeping both my patient safe from further infection and any of his partners safe.  Clearly this was my own agenda, not my patient’s, and trumped any of my analytic training.

 Another patient, who for many years had been desperately seeking a romantic relationship, was finally falling in love with a man with similar feelings.  My patient also periodically went though strong hypocondrical fears around minor health issues.  Two months into the relationship, my patient and his new boyfriend went to get tested for HIV.  Delighted when the tests both came back negative, my patient made it clear upon inquiry that they were now going to have unprotected sex.  After exploring the issue in session, I asked my patient if I could give my thoughts on the subject.  He readily agreed.  I expressed my concern that after two months of dating he barely knew his new boyfriend and was making a potentially devastating decision of trust extremely early in the relationship.  He listened attentively and showed appreciation, but at the same time pointed out that my point of view was colored by my own experiences with AIDS during the ‘80s and 90s.  Despite my feeling strongly that my history was not relevant to my concern, I refrained from pressing the issue.

Some therapists might view such patient behavior in an even more dismal light, and equate it with inflicting inward or outward violence.  While this is a common attitude, the issues involved are much more nuanced and complicated and while I’m certain that my interventions were appropriate, I must remain vigilante in avoiding the simple expression of opinion instead of vital and necessary intervention.

The Yearning to Merge

In working with patients and in reflecting on the special relationship I had with my identical twin brother, I’ve thought a lot about how people yearn for symbiotic relationships.  Without realizing that total symbiotic relationships are a fantasy – whether with a romantic partner, a parent with a child, friendships or others – people enter relationships with the unconscious need to be completely known and understood.  When there is a break in the symbiotic fantasy – when one feels the other does not understand, expresses anger, criticizes or functions differently – the shock of separateness can cause a primal rupture that threatens the relationship and evokes feelings of insecurity and instability.

Symbiotic rupture is most frequent and most threatening between romantic partners and between parents and children.  The unconscious yearning to have partners and children be a reflection of ourselves is very powerful.  We fall in love, have children, and create close friendships with the desire that we will merge with the object of our affection and be safe from our innate aloneness.  When this merging is threatened, we feel rejected or confused and judged.  Instead of the beauty of the other’s differences, we feel the loss of the other’s sameness and protection from isolation.  Instead of celebrating and learning from the other, we experience the pain of separateness.   This pain threatens feelings of having found “our other half” or our children being a reflection of us.

Being an identical twin gave me the primal experience of near complete symbiosis with another person.  Not only were we a merged unit from before birth – albeit also two separate individuals – we looked very much alive and sounded almost identical.  It seemed natural for me to go out into the world expecting the same symbiosis in my relationships with others.  It was with a lot of difficulty that I learned that the kind of relationship I had with my brother could not be repeated with others – whether partners, friends, or children.

This window into the special merging experienced in my twin relationship illuminates the yearning and desire of those I work with in my practice.  Through my own acceptance of the limitations of relationships other than the one I had with my brother, I help my patients work with the pain of not being able to fulfill the unattainable fantasy of total merging with others.

Intimacy between two people does not evolve from having the other be one’s own reflection.  Rather, intimacy grows because of the excitement and discovery of the other’s differences.  Working through differences that are both complimentary and challenging deepens the bond and the intimacy we crave with others.

Being an Identical Twin

Being an identical twin has profoundly influenced my life and my perception of others.   From birth I had an intimate knowledge into how another person experiences and relates to the world, an experience that has left me deeply empathic.

My brother and I had an abbreviated language that conveyed what we were feeling and thinking; we understood each other thoroughly.  As I look back at our relationship, I realize that this intimacy has enhanced my ability to empathize with other people.  Because my brother and I were so alike, the empathy we shared taught me to have strong empathy with others – an enormous gift in my work as a psychotherapist.

Along with empathy, my brother and I shared a deep understanding of each other.  This has left me particularly sensitive to the feeling of being misunderstood by others.  With those I work with in my practice, this sensitivity sharpens my diligence such that I ensure others feel heard and understood.

Although not universal, the desire to be understood and to share a world view presents itself frequently in the course of an analysis.  As an analyst, my experience as an identical twin invaluably illuminates my work.

Being a Therapist and an Actor

I’ve been thinking more about Wallace Shawn’s comment to me that a psychotherapist and an actor are much the same thing. Aside from it being a funny comment, I find much truth to it.

Exploring background, motivation, and reaction with the characters I played or monologues I studied seems very analogous to my work as a psychotherapist. With the people I work with as an analyst as well as the roles I had played as an actor, I explore how they experience the world and function in it.  Both involve how I perceive others and how I function in relation to them.

The difference between the two professions are also intriguing.  As an actor, I attempted to merge myself with the character I was presenting which is part of the nature of acting.  As a psychotherapist, I have to be diligent that merging doesn’t happen.  If it does, I explore whether what is happening could be projective identification – feelings felt by the person I am working with that are intolerable and, hence, unconsciously projecting into me; or my own countertransference – feelings that come from my own emotional makeup.

Considering this analogy between the two disciplines, I can see why acting was always such an alluring profession for me.   Now that I am a psychotherapist, much of what drew me to acting is now expressed in my work with the people I treat.

After some thought, what initially seemed like a funny statement from Wally Shawn now seems quite insightful.

When I was Young

In my early adulthood I imagined myself being a therapist.  Although knowing nothing of what that entailed, I was always a people person and interested in who people were and how they got that way.  I remember when in my 20’s, new alternative therapies like Fritz Pearl’s  “Gestalt Therapy” and Arthur Janov’s “The Primal Scream” were very popular.  Living an alternative lifestyle myself, these new ideas were exciting and very interesting.  I particularly took to gestalt therapy.  With no training and only a BA in Sociology, I imagined being a good therapist if that is what I decided to study.   I also imagined that being a good therapist would be easy for me because of my curious and warm personality.

I never pursued therapy as a profession back then.  I had always loved acting and moved to New York in 1980 to pursued that profession.

As an aside, a couple of years ago, I was in a food market and somehow happened to talk to Wallace Shawn, the playwright and actor.  He asked me what I did for a living and I told him I was a psychoanalyst.  He also asked me what I used to do before that and I told him I had been an actor.  Upon hearing this, he stated that being a psychoanalyst and being an actor were very much the same.  I thought that was pretty funny.  Coming from Wally Shawn, who had appeared in numerous Woody Allen movies, that observation seemed like it belonged in one of those films.

When I eventually went back to school in my 40’s for my long training as a psychotherapist, I quickly learned how little I knew about theory and how it informed being a good and insightful therapist.  The more I learned the more I realized how little I knew.