My brother promised to install the new speakers in my car, but he couldn’t get out of bed. Everyone in the family, including him, thought it was because of his depression, which was particularly severe that winter. It turned out that he had cancer. In spite of everything that his top-notch medical team did to save him, 18 months later, I held his hand while he took his last breath. He was 25. I was 26.
My fiancé and I were on a ski vacation. He had a bad belly ache. He was in terrible pain when I took him to the emergency room and was still in agony when they wheeled him into surgery the next morning to remove his appendix. The surgical team botched the anesthesia and Ron never regained consciousness. He would never finish law school; we would never marry. He was in a coma for four years and finally died at the age of 27.
I was in graduate school, studying clinical psychology when all of this took place. Don’t ask me how I managed to get my doctorate, find my wonderful husband, start a private practice, start a family and become a potter, a runner and now a blogger. Thirty years have passed since those tragedies happened, my amazing daughter and son are grown and on their own. I am grateful for every day I am alive. My capacity for joy and creative energy seem unbounded. I thought I knew how to love fully and well.
But recently, I became aware that the past had a grip on my emotions in a destructive way. My husband, Bob, was unhappy. He’s usually a pretty cheerful guy; I’m sure that’s part of the reason I chose him as my life partner. But in September and October of this year, he was kind of grumpy. He kept complaining about his job and about the hard winters here in upstate NY.
I found that I was annoyed with him. Why was he talking about moving right after we’d struggled through a huge renovation on our house? Why was he complaining just as I’d settled into my new kitchen, happy as could be? Couldn’t he focus on positive things and jolly himself out of this funk? I am ashamed to admit I wasn’t very nice to him.
Then I figured it out. I was aware of irritation, but really, underneath, I was terrified. That happens to us all, doesn’t it? Being scared is really uncomfortable, so we get mad at the source of the fear. Truth be told, I don’t deal with it very well when people who are really close to me are unhappy or in pain.
This is very, very difficult to admit. I think of myself as an empathic and compassionate person. I am a therapist — a good one — but tolerating pain in patients or friends is different from tolerating pain in the people we love most. When the people I love are in pain, part of me is sure it signals the beginning of the end. My brother was unhappy and then he was dead. My first love was in pain and he never woke up again.
Sometimes, I have an insight while I’m running that stops me in my tracks. This one hit me so hard, I was doubled over, crying so hard I couldn’t breathe.
I took a hard look at myself; my behavior wasn’t pretty. Then, I stepped back from my own reactivity and worked toward clarity. I set an intention to look deeply at my wonderful husband and see his struggle. He was unhappy for good reason. He is a genius who has never been fully supported by his employer. He will be 60 this year and he needs to, finally, find a job that values his research. His unhappiness is not about death, it’s about life!
I wrote him an email about my epiphany. I suggested that together, we honor his feelings and make his career needs our priority as a couple. I agreed to consider moving if that’s what it takes for him to realize his goals. He said that my message made him cry, he felt so understood.
Since I sent him that email three weeks ago, exciting things have begun to happen for him. There are two very interesting job possibilities. His unhappiness has been replaced by incredible vitality. And I have learned one of the most important lessons of my life.
I’ve learned that to love fully, I must be able to tolerate distress. I need to soften when the people I love are unhappy. It’s OK to be scared, but it’s not OK to close my heart. It is important to acknowledge my own terror — and to be with them in their pain. Now, I know a better way to love.