Glee in Sorrow: How To Reconcile
Posted by Dr. Vollmer on December 4, 2013
Lonnie, sixty-one, diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, tells Brady, seventy, female, since they have been friends for fifty years. Brady has an internal and an external reaction. Her external reaction, predictably, is one of concern, with offers to help in “any way” she can. Her internal reaction, though, troubles her. “I actually felt relieved that she got cancer and that I was still healthy,” Brady says with a sense of both guilt and glee. “It is as if you felt that there was one cancer ticket out there and she got it and so now you are in the clear,” I say, pointing out that our minds take us to interesting places and being mindful of where we go creates a depth to our awareness. The fear that a cancer diagnosis generates for all is palpable in Brady. Superficially one imagines that when a friend has a terminal disease, we rally to the cause with both concern and altruism, whereas, the complicated nature of “why not me,” creates another layer of feelings which can be both troubling and relieving. As narcissistic beings, all news is filtered through our own wishes and fears, and that layered over, our higher cognitive functioning kicks in, allowing us to be more giving and understanding of the other. The more Brady can understand what Lonnie’s diagnosis means to her (Brady), the more open she can be to understanding what the diagnosis means to Lonnie. As with all troubling news, the person grapples with how to integrate it into the mental space, and the more difficult the experience, the more likely that guilt and/or fear are going to dominate the mental landscape. For Lonnie, Brady tells me, has handled her diagnosis matter-of-factly, suggesting that she has not started the emotional journey of dying. For Brady, her guilt at feeling she missed the bullet, troubles her, and causes her superego to scream that she is a bad and unworthy person. At the same time, she is fearful that Lonnie will get wind of Brady’s relief that it is not her (Brady), and so she unconsciously keeps her distance from Lonnie. She tells Lonnie that “she is coming down with something so she better stay away,” leading me to wonder if this avoidance is secondary to Brady’s discomfort with Brady’s internal world. Working with layers, Brady can come to see that all feelings are welcome, and as such, behavior is another story.