An Occupational Secret

If you were to happen upon a picture in a magazine of a broadly smiling face whose caption read, “I’m so miserable,” or see a companion picture of a frowning tear-speckled face with the caption, “Things are going very well thank you,” you most likely would think, “Something is wrong with this picture.” Or maybe, to avoid the cliche, you’d declare, “Off with the editor’s head! They  must have reversed the captions by mistake.”

Not so fast. The widow Shirley would have been a fit subject of the first picture. Upon my arrival, she would joyously usher me into her stylish home.There she was, lively as could be, with her favorite kind of music purring from the living room and a batch of homemade “very very healthy granola” cookies ready to bask in the warmth of her oven. After her husband died, I visited her once a month for about a year, the maximum time that hospice workers offer to stay in touch with the bereaved. Shirley had a very complicated story, but her way of telling it did not go with the meaning of her words. She would talk of how terribly she missed Elliott and how devastated and lonely she was, but she smiled and smiled at me as if drinking me into her digestive system, her mascara-bedecked eyes dressed to kill, her arms migrating from the table to her cheeks to her forehead to the air and back round again as she pointed out photos of “the most wonderful man there ever was.” He truly was. Who else would take stopping at a red traffic light as an opportunity to get in yet another kiss during their day? Who else arrived at breakfast as if it were a date? Whew! Shirley really raised the bar on attentive spouses alright. What made her story truly poignant is that this perfect man was her second husband, who she was married to for a scant 6 years, but not until his predecessor obligingly got out of the way for him after 50 uninspiring years by leaving this earth.

The incongruity between what she was expressing and how she was behaving tipped me off to a much deeper story. How could someone so depressed flash around like she was hosting a surprise birthday party? How could a mourner so devastated be practically singing as she spoke? Picking up on this sort of thing is one of my occupational secrets. When something does not match, I know there’s much more going on that the mourner might need to become aware of or talk about. One of the many deeper layers we touched on during all those visits was that my being there brought a little of Elliott back to her. As I gave her the opportunity to speak about him at length, she got to feel close to him all over again as she passionately listed one marvelous quality of him after another.

Later in the year, I helped her to look at other layers that her cheerfulness might have held at bay, such as guilt she might have felt at being released from her less-than-ideal hubby Number One. Her demeanor and what she was saying started to match up more and more closely, Shirley was able to let her picture of Elliott become just faded and dusty enough to broaden her devotion to other people and other interests who were just then starting to come into focus.

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2 thoughts on “An Occupational Secret

  1. Dia says:

    This is fascinating Karen. I really admire the level of sensitivity you must have to detect the incongruity and then patiently guide her down inside herself to explore them. The last sentence in particular struck me. “Shirley was able to let her picture of Elliott become just faded and dusty enough to broaden her devotion to other people and other interests who were just then starting to come into focus.” Can maintaining a too-glowing memory of a lost loved one compromise a person’s ability to redirect those roots into living relationships? Hmm.

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  2. The answer to your question is a resounding “Yes.” Healthy grieving has to include the less-flattering parts of the deceased so that the griever can review all the parts of the relationship. In order to disconnect little by little, which is what grieving is partly about, the griever has to acknowledge and then disconnect from the disappointments of a relationship as well as the great things. At first, a griever may have an idealized view of the deceased, and then in time bring in the more rounded picture. I didn’t realize until you brought it up, Dia, that my last sentence evoked that very idea. As always, thanks for your dialogue with me. Warmly, Karen

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