As a result of a comment made in reference to my blog entry, “The Howl of Grief,” I have decided to share something a bit more personal. In spite of my role as a therapist, I believe there are appropriate ways for myself and other therapists to share personal experiences with grief.
What follows is an excerpt from a paper I wrote entitled, Psychotherapy and Existential Crisis in the Fourth Decade of Life, presented at The National Association of Social Workers a few years back after a sudden loss experience.
“Each of us stumbles upon the major issue of midlife somewhere in the decade between 35 and 45. Eventually, we all confront reality. And somehow, we must learn to live with it.” -Sheehy
Nine years ago, I was covering for my mentor at his grief counseling center. He and his wife were on retreat with their Tibetan Buddhist Lhamas and community. My tasks were straightforward: do the books, take care of the staff’s needs, and make sure the office was in good shape. In short, I was the go-to guy. In addition, I was to remain available to any clients who might wish to be seen in Jerry’s absence. Back then I was working full time at a social service agency as a counselor and care manager for the elderly and their families. In addition, I was teaching two masters level courses, one at Jane Addams, and the other at the University of Chicago. Life was busy, why with the work, a wife, and two small children. I had also just moved my family to Evanston and many boxes were still unopened. I remember thinking that it was getting harder and harder to be egocentric. Was this the midlife odyssey approaching fast?
Jerry and I had multiple layers to our relationship. He was my first therapist. He later became a mentor, colleague, and friend. Many would frown on this kind of multiplicity, but we managed its complexity quite well. It was 12 years since we had first met. Jerry helped me grieve many childhood losses and stretch me toward new growth. One time, he turned to me in front of our board of directors of the then Transpersonal Psychology Network of Not Just Chicago, and announced, “I think David should be president now.” I was stunned and titillated both. Only Jerry could do that. I did wind up becoming president shortly thereafter, which was tough, but I learned a lot.
“Death is the best teacher of generativity.” Chinen
I was tired by the time I got home that night: more accounting than I ever wanted to do and one of Jerry’s client’s came in for a session. He talked at length about how he had found the Center. He said when he read the ad for The Center for Grief Recovery, he knew that’s where he needed to go to do his inner work.
Later, opening the front door to my house, I noticed my wife coming to greet me. The expression on her face seemed strained. “Jerry had a heart attack and died,” she said. It was a strange sensation to have my knees involuntarily buckle beneath me. In a flash I was leaning into the wall and feeling my heart pounding in my chest.
The next day I found myself on a small airplane traveling to upstate New York. There I would be attending a traditional Tibetan Buddhist funeral ceremony. The weather was bright and clear. I hadn’t a clue about what to expect. What I found was a rare and precious dignity in the land and community. I felt guided and held in tenderness. I recall standing above Jerry’s casket hours before his cremation. He looked kingly and serene. I was numb, but grateful I could say good-bye to him in this manner. Two days later I found myself driving home with his widow Chris; Jerry’s ashes in the back seat. We seemed to sail into Chicago with the wind at our backs.
Landing was more difficult. Chris swiftly assumed the executive directorship of the Center and began planning Jerry’s memorial. I was now left with the question I had been slowly contemplating before these events: when would I go into private practice? An intense period of soul-searching had commenced again.
Meanwhile, I called and met with all of Jerry’s clients. The Center for Grief Recovery was in the midst of its own traumatic grief reaction. It’s founder and director had suddenly disappeared and forever. The waves around us grew large and our boat bobbed and weaved. Our goal was to see clients and to deal with our own shock and disbelief as a staff. Jerry became a symbol for me then. In the absence of his physical form his legacy became increasingly important. I had used the word legacy before, but it had a new feeling about it now. Do I have a legacy? What is my life work? Can I stay where I am and be fulfilled? Unclear. But as some of the clouds dispersed I saw myself sitting in his chair at his desk seeing his clients working along side his wife at his counseling center. The Center for Grief Recovery and Sibling Loss—an idea conceived out of the shattering experience of losing his older brother to a hunting accident as a child—now uncannily seemed to hint its way into my awareness. Little did I really know, that while he certainly was planning to come home after his retreat, Jerry had also been thinking I’d make a good candidate for the directorship of a counseling center.