My therapist saved me from the worst of times, and enabled me to celebrate the best. Who was supposed to console me when she died?
It started, as these things so often do now, on Facebook. My screen flashed with the notification that someone had accepted my friend request.
I smiled. It was V.
V. had been my longtime therapist, but it had been almost ten years since I had been a client. Months before she had shown up on Facebook’s “People you may know” sidebar, a fact I found both hilarious and alarming. (How did they know?) Her failure to respond to my request had made me uneasy and a little ashamed, thinking maybe I had crossed some nebulous line of professional boundaries. Our relationship’s edge had always had a quavering uncertainty. There had been an unkind whisper when V. was a guest at my 2002 wedding, although she had assured me it wasn’t inappropriate for her to be there. Years later, after I had moved away, she’d come to a book signing for the book I had ghostwritten for a celebrity, and gamely posed for a photo with him. I once got a notification that she was following me on Twitter, but she hadn’t answered the DM I sent in response.
Beyond those few incidents, our entire relationship had unfolded in V.’s white-noise-filled office, where I unloaded myself over the course of 12 years, one 50-minute chunk at a time. The first time I walked through V.’s door, I was 23, unhealthily consumed by a toxic relationship with a man I was too emotionally tone deaf to have known to avoid. I wasn’t with him, as they like to say on The Bachelor, “for the right reasons.” And when things inevitably went south, badly, V. saw me at my devastated worst, shepherding me through a crippling, soul-sucking depression so bad I sometimes had to meet with her three times a week. When I got so thin a shocked friend told me I looked “concave,” I remember V. telling me it was okay to give myself permission to eat HoHos for breakfast if it made me feel better. Anything to get through, to not lose my grip on the lifeline and go under.
And somehow, with her help, I held on and found my way back to solid, unremarkable ground. V. hadn’t made me perfect or invincible, by any stretch. She had just made me … healthy. She was direct and patient and funny. She’d mothered me, nagged me, challenged and cheered me. Nine and a half years after we first met, I sat on V.’s couch and showed her my brand-new engagement ring. She beamed. Two months after I turned 35, I sat on V.’s couch and told her I was pregnant.
It was as if V. had performed a kind of alchemy on my broken self, helping to fashion the defective, rusted pieces inside me into something that gleamed and hummed again. I was eager to reconnect with her, to twirl in front of her like a little girl in a party dress and show her I was all grown up.
But when I clicked on V.’s Facebook page, I reeled and gasped. “I want to give everyone advance notice that on 1/1/2014, I will request that V.’s FB page be changed to a memorial page,” read the first post. I scanned the page and saw the all-too familiar buzzwords of terminal illness. Hospice. Prayers. Memorial service. Brain tumor. V. had died last May, a day before her 64th birthday. I was still sending her Christmas cards.
My hand instinctively covered my mouth. I felt flattened. Bereft. How could she be dead? I immediately felt the overwhelming impulse to tell somebody. But then I realized that though I’d had one of the most intimate relationships of my entire life with V., nobody close to me knew her at all. Not my husband. Not my best friend. Not my mother. And I didn’t know anyone at all who had been in her circle. It was the most bizarre, solitary experience of grief I had ever known, as if I were mourning a clandestine lover.
Though I’m still not sure why my friend request was accepted eight months after V. died, her Facebook page provided a strangely thrilling glimpse at her life outside the office walls. I saw a photo of her clowning for the camera with her book club and had the same wide-eyed sensation I used to feel as a child upon running into my teacher in the grocery store. There she was at a birthday lunch with friends. She’d posted memes and jokes and newspaper articles. I immediately began to sob reading V.’s wonderfully irreverent obituary, which illuminated her to me in a whole new way. I learned of her affection for the Olympics, The Bachelor, and baroque music. I learned that she had been in a Robert Altman film. “She loved Princess Diana, JFK Jr., Oprah, her beloved clients, and her wide circle of friends,” it said. “She didn’t like very many Republicans.”
The strange thing is that I’d actually been thinking about V. a lot of late. I had been working on a piece about those wretched years in my 20s, about how strenuously I had worked to unkink the knots I’d worked my life into. V. had been so much a part of that process that when I think of that time, I invariably picture myself sitting on her office couch. She fine-tuned me, emotionally, teaching me to value kindness more and credentials less. I often sense her in the way I parent my children, even though she never knew them. She was part of me in a way that few people can be, sewn into my very fabric. She was the midwife to my adult self.
My grief over V.’s death was amplified by the fact that I’d had no idea she was ill. It tugged at me that I had not been able to be there for her when she suffered, as she had been there for me. But that, of course, is the very nature of the relationship: the therapist gives unilaterally, unconditionally. They purposefully reveal very little of themselves to you and expect nothing from you. In death it was no different. I was comforted to know V. had friends and family who had loved her and supported her through her illness, a circle that I was clearly not meant to be part of. “I read her 30 minutes worth of tributes and messages from everyone, and she listened with her eyes open the whole time,” her brother reported the day before she passed away. “When the doctor came in shortly afterwards and asked her if anything hurt, she mustered the energy to say ‘my heart.’”
It stung bitterly that I had not had the chance to say goodbye, to have a neat and tidy Hollywood ending where I got to thank V. for all she had done for me. I felt cheated.
But then I realized the irony of it.
“You got better. That’s how you thank your therapist,” a friend said wisely.
My time on V.’s couch had shown me that life could hand you brutal sorrows and undeserved hurts, could curve in ways you couldn’t possibly predict. But it was also on that couch that I learned the strategies to navigate those curves, to keep from falling apart when things were sad or painful or overwhelming. It was bittersweet to realize that my grief over V.’s sudden death was exactly the kind of heartache she had prepared me to weather. So here I am twirling in my party dress, V. I hope you can see I’m all grown up now.
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