Later today somebody called me, left voicemail for me to call back. I totally thought it was about business, but all he wanted was to call, to see how I'm doing. That just threw me.
My dreams scare me.
I go through the usual words with people: It's hard. I find myself crying at nothing. I have a headache. I'm cold. I have a stomach ache. (Somaticizing isn't hard, but it is an art).
And it's very different, not what I would have thought it would be.
You get a break and it comes back. You're surprised every time.
Heck, I had four months to get used to the idea that my father was living on borrowed time, and we had some very intimate moments. Dying is very intimate if you share it, and it occurs to me that maybe some people have an extended dying just so they can be intimate.
Probably we can never be prepared, can never predict what it will be like, no matter the type of relationship we have had with a parent. If you take a hit, you shouldn't be surprised, and if you don't, it's okay. The books on death and dying recommend that if possible, grieve as a family. Discuss your different trajectories, mark important days, discuss memories. Let the emotions roll. And spread it out, talk to all kinds of people if you feel like it.
Meanwhile, here I am at work as if nothing has happened and it really feels this way at the moment. Gotta' love the brain.
A follow-up on eulogies:
I started out mine about my father admitting that before writing the eulogy I looked up the rules of eulogies in one of the rule books. There, in black and white and a little Hebrew, it said:
You can exaggerate. Not that much, but if there's a question, you can. You can err on the side of the positive.Now this is incredibly important information. I don't know anyone who can't stand to be idealized a little bit in life or death, do you?
A man was dying. He had lived a full life but was clearly, undoubtedly, beleaguered with not one personality disorder, but with features of several. He hoarded, he was narcissistic, he stole on occasion, and his jealousy was completely, totally irrational, bordered on psychotic at times.
His son, let's call him Eugene, went to the funeral of a friend's father. His friend spoke glowingly of the deceased, tearfully, and as Eugene listened, he panicked.
"I'm ____ed," he moaned. "What in the world am I going to say about my father? My father was such a nothing compared to this guy. So selfish! And he's not going to make it through the year! He could die any day now!"
Eugene went home and quickly wrote a eulogy emphasizing whatever good he could find in his father's life. The focus was entirely on his father's good qualities, and he made some of the bad sound comical, not dysfunctional.
When the time came, when his father died, Eugene stood up in front of the crowd at the chapel and delivered a wonderful eulogy, had people in tears of laughter and love, and everyone said what a wonderful man his father must have been.
Eugene didn't know what to do, didn't want to correct anyone who said, Your father sounds like he was such a wonderful man. You were so lucky to have had him; what a wonderful family it must have been to grow up in. So he would disclose just a little now and then.
"My father was difficult," he might say. Or, "You couldn't correct my father, if you did he would call you stupid."
But this bothered him, made him feel guilty, besmirching the name of the dead, his father, the man who gave him life, for better or for worse. So he stopped it and let the positives of his dad's life eclipse the negatives. He could talk about the truth with his wife and his mother, for they knew this man. They grieved who he hadn't been, too, and their emotions were plenty rich. With others, however, he took one for the team.
He found that he was really angry and his anger wouldn't quit. Unable to shake it, he went to therapy. Here he learned that this is normal, being angry at someone who didn't treat you well, who could be irresponsible, difficult. Eventually he would be able to let it go, who his father really was, even forgive.
Perhaps it's not much of a story. But let me tell you how some of us would work a therapy like this, thanks, in part, to what we know about mental illness.
For sure we'd aim for acceptance while working through the full range of grieving, the sadness, the anger, the guilt, the denial, the shame-- the Kubler-Ross stages of grief. And some of us might even bring in other family members.
Family therapists will sketch out at an emotional family tree, inquire about the suicides, the mental illness, the infamous experiences in the extended family, reaching back in time. We want to know who left town and never came back, what became of the black sheep, what the norms are in the family about differentiation, and why. We inquire about how anger is expressed, and sadness, and who set these rules, and why. We want to know the meaning of success to those who are no longer living, and the meaning of failure.
To investigate, to get more of the story, patients are encouraged to interview living elderly relatives, to find photographs, letters. The job is to uncover, if possible, the good in the family, but also the mental or behavioral disorders, too, and the quirky, if not always so pleasant, personalities.
Based upon this, some of us will proffer a tentative individual diagnosis or three, defining, psychologically, members of the family who may have long since passed away, at least labeling the features. This may or may not make people feel better, but it is what it is and it's something to consider, something important to talk about, something to grieve.
"Is it genetic?" patients ask about a particular diagnosis.
We'll say yes, if we think so, or admit we don't know. Maybe, maybe not, depending upon who is fertilizing whose egg. But it's a good thing to know, isn't it, that if an ancestor has features of a disorder, that descendants might have these features as well?
For whether or not things are genetic, everything behavioral can be learned and passed down. All of us struggle with our nature, and we fight how we've been nurtured, too. Both are likely to be transgenerational, even dysfunctional in some way.
I like to think that we can fight both, that much of personality can be shaped and confronted in a nice way, and that most mental illness can be treated. We may have to change how we define success and failure.
The kicker, the part that is most difficult for many patients to buy in this psycho-educational family therapy, is that it's good to "out" our mentally ill, personality disordered, addicted relatives. Out them to the children, mainly, expose those who, dead or alive, have or had issues, or were perhaps differently-abled.
Certainly when it comes to mental illness, rather than attempt to erase a person from the family tree, own the mishigas, (rhymes with wish-ih-moss, Yiddish for craziness) and vaccinate the kids, empower them.
It's so funny. When you tell your kids about the colorful people in the family, they get it right away. And no, they don't want to be just like them. The research on self-fulfilling prophesies has always been a little light.
All that said, you don't have to roast anyone at a funeral, not unless you know your crowd.