Suddenly, and unexpectedly, I experienced the loss of my extended family. My older daughter stopped talking to me or allowing any connection between me and herself, and her family. This included my three-and-a-half year old grandson with whom I had had, up until that time, a weekly relationship.
I was simply unplugged from the family. Everything else seemed to remain the same. I battled with this thought, knowing it was a distortion, but I did not heal from this loss. Slowly I began to understand that this was a loss that not only I would not heal from, but I would die of. I had some play in speeding and slowing it, but not much. This understanding became the flotation device I might use to try to rise out of what felt like being dissolved in battery acid. I began to realize that my choices were limited to holding on or letting go, but the acid was the constant. Then I realized that even the holding on and letting go was uncontrollable, and I began to sink into despair and futility. I lost the zest for Life that I had once been known for, I became ill, and I became old.
Somewhere in the fog of what I knew was partly self imposed suffering, I was vaguely aware that I controlled the volume of my self-recriminations, but only slightly, and only some of the time.
I wanted the pain to end. I felt the edge of my strength and I was aware more than ever before of what a weak, self-centered creature I am. Faced with a conflict that seemed more than I could handle, I revisited every defense, from denial to suppression. Nothing worked. My good self-observing skills seemed paralyzed to do anything but watch and register shame as I struggled helplessly with intense self-blame and criticism. As I collapsed into hopelessness, it was not lost on me that what trapped mourning and changed it into melancholy was the excessive, inappropriate guilt I felt.
Losing Oma Gay Parnell, Ph.D.
Unlike a real death, I had no social support for my loss. I imagined that people would judge my loss as punishment for poor mothering. My paranoia grew as I imagined my colleagues would not refer patients to me any more if they knew, that it was obviously my fault, that the guilt was not inappropriate, that the punishment was deserved.
Having cast away Religion very early in my life as a device from which to hide from personal responsibility, I began to use reason. Logic was my new flotation device. If everyone else is still happy, if no one else is suffering, then I should be happy that they are happy without me. I then reasoned that any unhappiness I felt was neurotic and self imposed. This logic gave me the vantage point of recognizing that this tremendous loss was something that I deserved because of my badness, a special punishment picked exactly to fit the level of heinous crime I had committed. This felt right to me. I assumed that this insight would lessen the pain, but instead I felt more despicable because of my selfish self-destructiveness.
I knew I had to move outside my perseverative ruminations if I wanted my life back, but I could not find the way back. I became angry and imagined revenge. I thought of dying from the complications of the illness that I had thrust upon myself through stress. I imagined that my memorial service would be well enough attended so that those who caused my suffering would rethink their decision that I was expendable. Then I felt even more self centered and childish.
I was so unprepared for this loss, I began to suspect that if I did not move toward acceptance, my physiology would not tolerate more stress. And, yet, I did not know what to accept. There was no death, no closure, no end. I needed to keep sending letters and cards into the unknown. I needed not to accept the loss, and yet somehow not be electrocuted by hanging on. I began to be convinced that this was supposed to be happening. Knowing that this was reductionistic and superstitious made me doubt more, but slowly I realized that this pain was teaching me something.. .that this insurmountable loss had a riddle in it and was the key to my enlightenment.
It had to make sense to me that I was learning something from the experience, that even though I did not know what I had said, even though I had gone over the precipitating event time after time looking for clues to what had happened, so that I could address it, could learn not to do it again. I began to reason that if I had done something so heinous that I had to lose my family, then I deserved to be away from them until I learned what it was that I needed to learn, a kind of time out, a time to contemplate the consequences of my actions. I further reasoned that I no longer was the center of any family and that was not a tragedy, simply a truth.
About that time, I was provided with another series of enlightenments that led me to a vista of understanding that my bond to physicality, the love of my own children, had limited my view, in a way that now seemed quite concrete. I had tormented myself with stories I imagined were told to my beloved Grandson, now lost to me. Had they said I was dead, or that I was bad and mean, not to be visited again. I imagined that he cried himself to sleep. I remembered having to load him into his mother’s car as he clung to me and cried and begged to stay with Oma. Was Oma dead? Was I?
I tried to stay focused on my daughter’s pain, that I had to live through this destruction, survive, and LOVE her through it.
I remembered once stating, during a lecture on Development, that good parents were compost for their children. I just didn’t realize how shitty compost was. But other children needed Elders. The image of reading to MY grandchildren moved to the Public Library and involved ALL children, for example.
Then I began to meditate with the idea of the person I believed responsible for this pain being my teacher, as well as my daughter, and the abandonment was a simple riddle that if I looked at long enough, worked with long enough, I would solve, and if I didn’t, well then, I would die weaving the pattern of my attempts, that this was my path, that it kept me in a constant state of mindfulness, in part because if I slipped off of it, I was back in the battery acid.
My favorite self recrimination shifted from “you are the worst mother alive and this is your punishment,” to “you have a lot to learn.” Sometimes, I could step away from my suffering so completely, that I had the perspective of seeing myself as having had a temper tantrum, the complete childishness to focus on my happiness instead of that of my precious child. I reasoned that if I became at peace enough with what I had this moment, which included the good memories, then every moment past this one was a gift.
Holding this view also helped me stabilize more with my analysands. It seemed that I got out of my own way more, listened better, heard more, felt less identified with, and more with. My ability to use suffering both as a defense against a path and as a path, gave me thevision to interpret that symbol more often as it appeared in the work of my patients. I had a vantage to offer, a place to look at suffering. And I still have a lot to learn.