Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Mourning Time

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on July 8, 2013

Bethany, fifty-six, just came back from a memorial service for Zach, a sixty-one year old male friend/acquaintance that she has not had contact with for over five years. Bethany’s ambivalent relationship with Zach tortured her at the service. ” I know I am not supposed to speak ill of the dead, and I know that Zach and I had some really good times over the twenty years that I knew him, but when I think about him, I think that he made me feel bad, so much of the time, that it is hard for me to grieve for him and his family.” Bethany describes her struggle to mourn, to “show up” to a place where her feelings are mixed, and her honest comments would have been negative and inappropriate. Bethany maintained the double life of sympathy and antipathy. “Clearly you went because you felt your presence was important-for you and maybe for Zach’s loved ones,” I say, highlighting the mixture of emotions that Bethany was feeling. “Oh yes. I really liked his wife, and of course, that is who is left, so it made sense for me to show up, but I had to bite my tongue and that was hard.” Bethany says, describing how her internal dialogue weighed on her, as people spoke about Zach and all of the wonderful things he had done for others. “Grieving is hard, but it is even harder if your feelings are so mixed,” I say, repeating an old theory, that the more ambivalent the relationship, the harder the grief. “Yes, in my fantasy life, I wish I could have stood up and told the story of how he hurt my feelings, so very deeply.” Bethany says, inviting me to ask her about that story. “When I had a large loss in my life, Zach, seemingly uncomfortable, kept telling me how I should feel bad for a mutual friend of ours, who was struggling with his elderly  mother. I thought Zach was painfully insensitive at that moment, and it really hurt.” Bethany says with tears, as she calls up this memory. “It is interesting that that insensitive moment stood out so strongly for you.” I say, wondering why Zach’s response was so penetrating for her. ” I just wanted him to ask how he could be there for me, and not tell me how I should be there for our mutual friend,” Bethany says, knowing now that she can never have that discussion with him. “This is a hard session,” I say. “We have never spoken about Zach before, but I get the sense he was a very important person in your life,”. “I guess I just found that out,” Bethany says, with a touch of humor in this heavy visit.

3 Responses to “Mourning Time”

  1. Jon said

    People in life are complicated, so it comes as no surprise that they remain complicated after they have lived. There is good and bad in each of us – with luck more good than bad. Mark Antony’s comments about Julius Caesar (as given by William Shakespeare, Act 3. Scene II) are much overstated: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” Thus, Bethany’s ambivalent feelings about Zach are to be expected in retrospect. Seeing a person as they are or were, and being able to accept and love that person is indeed part of what makes us human.

    • Dear Jon and Shelly,
      You both bring up excellent points, particularly that ambivalent grieving is more complicated, and hence more filled with guilt and unconscious angst. At the same time, memorial services are often tilted towards only the good side of the deceased. Commonly, people learn new things at memorials; things about the deceased they find shocking or just interesting. This “material” can add to the bewilderment around death and dying. Bethany sure has her struggles, but she also highlights the universal struggle that we all have; life is finite. Thanks.

  2. Shelly said

    It’s interesting, but why do I get the feeling that most people are more remembered for the bad things they’ve done and the hurt they’ve caused than the good? Where was it that I heard that a widow who cries and is despondent over the death of her husband for a very long time usually has lived a difficult life with that person, and that she generally gets over the death of a beloved husband much faster and feels much less regret? In this sense, I feel Bethany is similar: she cannot seem to get over the death of Zach because she still has her unfinished business with him and is still seeking meaning and a connection with him that apparently will never come.

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