How to Deal with the Death of your Psychoanalyst

I was lying on my bed one day when I realized I had gone as far as I could alone. I had to talk to someone or I was going to lose my mind. I was encased in a kind of catatonia. I frequently went two or three days at a time without talking to anyone, not even a store clerk. I lived alone in a slummy one room apartment. I cleaned houses to make money. I was alone when I cleaned people’s houses and I was alone when I came home. I felt odd and ashamed. I felt defective. So I avoided people.

That afternoon, I got off my bed and walked around the cornor to the community mental health center on the next block. I was lucky it was there because I didn’t have the energy to do more than walk down the street. If I had had to look in the phone book or make a call or drive somewhere, I wouldn’t have. I wasn’t looking for help with my problems. I just wanted someone I could talk to on a regular basis. After a lengthy intake process, they assigned me to a therapist who practised psychoanalytic therapy.

I told the therapist I was just there for respite from the all consuming loneliness. She said that was okay. She would be a support for me. But she was a therapist, so we were also going to talk about things. She began by asking me about my childhood, about what I remembered of the mundane details from that time. What had been my routine when I got up in the morning? What had I eaten for breakfast? Who had been in the kitchen with me? What had we talked about? Over time I remembered a scenario of sexual and psychological abuse of the most bizarre and insidious nature. Over time my shame turned to sadness as I reconnected with myself.

As I told this woman my story I realized it was the first time I was telling the truth about who I was and what my life had been to anyone, including myself. I began to feel alive again. I knew she was helping me. I recognized very quickly that she was extremely good at what she did and that she was particularly skilled at helping incest survivors. I knew in my bones I had to stay with her. But it was painful. She reminded me a lot of my primary perpetrator. She actually looked like her. I went through a lengthy transference process in which I assigned all of my hate for my perpetrator onto her. But then I had a breakthrough one day and I began to love her.

Three weeks to the day that I began to love her, I went to the clinic for my appointment and was told she wasn’t there. She was sick. She was taking a few weeks off. I had known she was ill. She had been coughing a lot. Her voice had become hoarse. She had begun using part of our sessions to talk about her illness and what she was doing about it. She had told me she was taking vitamin C.

I got very scared when she started talking about being sick. She had always been the consumate professional. She never talked about herself. I knew in my bones something was very wrong.

When they told me she was taking a few weeks off, I knew I was never going to see her again.

When I gathered up the courage to go back and ask how she was, they told me she was terminal. Stage four breast cancer. She had been in remission. It came back.

I cried myself to sleep every night for the next few weeks. I thought of her sitting in her apartment alone and scared, waiting to die. My heart broke in waves as I cried into my pillow.

For weeks I thought about writing to her. But I thought if I did it would signal to her that I knew she was dying. I thought back to our final sessions and realized she must have known what was happening all along but denied it, pretending it was a bad cold. If she was still clinging to denial, I didn’t want to shatter it.

They told me she had about ten months. In month 8 or 9 I finally wrote the letter. It was conveyed to me that about two days before she died, the letter was read to her in the hospital. I was told that she had smiled.

After she died, I went into despair. Everything was over for me. She had promised me our relationship was going to be the beginning of my learning to connect with people and have a life. I would learn to trust her, I would practise on her. And I would build from that. She wasn’t going anywhere. The therapy wouldn’t end until I said it was over. She would be there for me.

I was on automatic pilot now; getting up to go to work, doing errands, going through the motions. But I was dead inside.

I finally decided it was time to start over. I began seeing another therapist. But it didn’t click. Part of me didn’t want it to, because it would have meant letting go of her. After a few months I stopped. I saw another therapist after that. She was very wise. She saw that I was still grieving and gently directed me just to talk about Lois. She helped me grieve. She didn’t say much. But she was sensitive and tuned in. And I got comfort.

I never went back into therapy. My healing process stopped where I left off. I didn’t progress. I have some casual acquaintances, but no real friends. Romantic relationships don’t work for me. I’m not saying it had to be this way. Maybe I could have gotten more help. But I’m a person prone to inertia. I don’t get motivated unless I’m desperate. My life is grey, but not desperate. Or maybe it is, but I’ve just gotten used to it.

I have no advice on how to cope with the death of a therapist.