Therapy in L.A.


  article of the month
February 2004
By Dorothea McArthur, Ph.D.

Alison sat slumped in her big overstuffed chair in the dark living room. It was gloomy because of early morning fog, but no lights were on. Alison's brother, Dan, came into the room, looking frustrated with his hands on his hips. The room was cluttered with papers and dishes. Alison's startled expression told him she had just come out of a daze. He waited.

She began slowly. "It is November 13. One year ago today, you know, my daughter died in a car accident. I feel so blue. I am lost in a room so dark that I cannot see the furniture. I feel so angry I could scream. The tears have been leaking out everywhere for days. Somehow, it must have been my fault because there must have been something I should have done to prevent it. I should have made her take driver's training. I am hopeless because I do not know what to do with myself. These feeling have plagued me now for one whole year."

"Yes, you are right. It is the 13th. I've tried to be your best brother for the past year but I must admit I am beginning to burn out on grieving. I wonder if we can ever do the 13th of a month just as a regular day. I've had people die that I cared about, but I don't grieve for a whole year. Something seems wrong here."

"I know but I want to do something special today because it is the anniversary of her death," Alison blubbered.

"I don't really know what to do. I already have some plans for today. I just don't think she would want you to act this way, a whole year later."

"Some people have told me that the anniversary is when feelings come up and the second year is harder than the first year."

"I suppose you could make it that way if you want grieving to be your lifelong profession," Daniel snapped back.

"Never mind. I'll do something by myself "

Dan walked out to his garage and slammed the back door. Alison slowly dumped her large frame out of the chair and limped across the room. She went out the front door and shuffled her way down the street to the village dock. She clutched a box in one hand that was buried deep in an apron pocket. The ferry was sounding its horn to announce its departure in five minutes. She found enough money in another pocket to climb on the boat just as they were pulling up the gangplank.

It was a cool day. The fog was lifting. The dusk was giving way to a golden sun on some parts of the water. Alison found a deck chair and slumped in the same position she had taken in her living room. She didn't even notice that she was sitting next to a soldier in uniform. The soldier watched her discreetly in silence for a time while the boat pulled away from the dock. Then gently, he asked, "You look uncomfortable. Is there anything I can do for you?"

Alison stared straight ahead, acting as if she did not hear him. Instead, she watched a seagull circle and land on the flag pole of the ferry.

He waited patiently.

She said, "It is the anniversary of my daughter's death. I am sad, and angry and hurt."

He responded gently, "I can relate to that. My best friend died in the Afghanistan war a little more than a year ago. I was afraid that I would never stop missing him."

"What did you do to handle it?"

"Well, let's see I grieved for a long time. When the anniversary came around, I decided that it was time to turn my sadness into a memorial. That is I guess I decided to give up all of the sad, angry, guilty, resenting, bitter feelings that I was swimming in. I felt like they were draining me of life and making me feel dead. So instead, I decided to make a memorial to him that celebrated all of the good feelings we had together... enough about me. Tell me, how old was your daughter and did you and your daughter have a good relationship? "

"Yes, I think we did. She was twenty. We struggled through a normal adolescent rebellion, but we both clearly knew that we loved each other and were there for each other."

„Well, I decided, on the anniversary, to celebrate my wonderful relationship for as long as I was privileged to have it. I remembered all of the best things about my friend and us. I cherished the fact that he saved my life more than once...... What part of nature did your daughter like the best?"

"The water.... the ocean right here."

My friend liked gardens. So, I made a special garden for him with his name on it. I chose flowers that represented his favorite colors. I took the little bit of his ashes his parents gave to me out of the box and put them in the garden to nourish the plants..... Did you talk easily with your daughter?"

"Yes, most of the time. We argued some."

"After I finished the garden, I sat down right there and talked to him. I told him what I was planning to do next with my life. I talked to him just the way I always did. I swear I heard his voice say, 'Thank you, buddy, and go for it. I'll be with you. You can talk to me anytime.."

"I see," said Alison slowly.

"What did your daughter like to do best?" This stranger soldier coaxed.

"She loved to come out on the water in a canoe and watch the baby seals."

"If she were to speak to you now, what do you think she would say?"

"She would tell me to knock off the crying and throw her ashes in the water so that they would float over to the rocks where the seals are. Then she would tell me to get my ass in gear and go to art school, so I could be an art teacher. I had just started school before she died. But I dropped out with the grief. "

"Can you grant her wish?"

"Yes, I have the ashes with me and I could sign up for a course in January."

The ferry had just about finished its journey. It pulled into the next harbor, passing the rocks where the seals lay guarding their young. Alison thought for some time, then slowly pulled the box from her pocket and scattered the ashes on the water from the boat. She watched them drift towards the rocks and the seals.

There were no tears; instead she was almost smiling.

She turned to the soldier and said, "Thank you." He nodded quietly, and got off the boat. She returned to her deck chair to make the journey back home. This time she sat up straight. She was filled with feelings that made her strong, like willingness, reason, and trust, and love, and even joy and peace.

She walked briskly back to the house. She heard the leaves rustling in the trees for the first time in a year. Dan looked surprised. 'What happened to you?" he blurted awkwardly.

"I met a soldier on the ferry who taught me a thing or two. I'll be better now," Alison said as she started to cook a late breakfast. "Want some?"

"Well, I guess so sure. You are different. What happened to you? I don't get it." Dan mumbled through a mouthful of scrambled eggs.

"I'm learning to let my daughter go and to remember the good times we had together. I am taking back my own life, to do what I know she would want me to do. That's enough for one day, don't you think?"

"Yeah you bet. Good for you." Dan got up, took his dishes to the sink, came back and hugged her awkwardly, and then slipped quietly out the back door to the garage.

Dr. McArthur is a psychotherapist in practice in Los Angeles. She is the President of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.

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