An excerpt from the book, Life With Pop: Lessons on Caring for an Aging Parent, by Janis Abrahms Spring, Ph.D., with Michael Spring.
“My father’s colon cancer has returned,” a patient named Robin tells me. Her healthy glow belies her emotional fragility. “The chemo didn’t work, and the doctors aren’t optimistic. He’s only seventy-seven. I can’t imagine life without him.”
Robin’s eyes well up, and she begins to sob. “He’s been the best dad in the world. My rock. How will I go on when he’s gone? How do people do it — losing someone they love so much?”
I sit facing Robin, paralyzed. Should I tell her the truth — that I ask myself the same question every day and have no answer? I could tell her I know what it’s like to feel terrified and alone, but why burden her with my story?
“Robin,” I begin, “losing a father you love so much is an incalculable loss. But if you paint him as a saint you’ll exaggerate that loss and make it harder for you to separate from him. I’m not saying your love isn’t real, but living apart, seeing him only from time to time, you may have made him larger than life and turned him from the father he was into the father you wanted him to be. To carry on without him, to let him go, you need to dethrone him, and separate the man from the myth. I encourage you to ask yourself: ‘By magnifying his role in my life, am I underestimating my ability to function without him?’ It would be good to remind yourself that you’re no longer a small, helpless child, alone in the world. You have a network of close friends to support you, and a thriving career. I don’t mean to minimize your father’s importance in your life, but I don’t want you to minimize your resourcefulness, either. You’ve done so much on your own.”
Robin brushes the hair back from her eyes. “Rationally, I know what you’re saying is true,” she concedes. “I even know that Dad isn’t perfect and hasn’t always been there for me. But emotionally I feel like I’m falling from the sky with no net to catch me.”
“Robin, there’s a saying that may help you during this terrible time: ‘People die, relationships don’t.’ Does that mean anything to you?”
“You’re saying my father will die but my relationship with him will last forever?”
“Yes, when a person dies you lose their body but not their imprint on your life. When your father leaves this world, everything about him — his humor, his belief in you, his delight in your specialness — will continue to live on inside you, and through you. I promise.”
The session is over. Robin stands to leave. “You’ve been helpful,” she says.
It goes both ways, I’m thinking. As I find the words to help you, I help myself.
JANIS ABRAHMS SPRING, PH.D is an award-winning author and board-certified clinical psychologist in private practice for 36 years. Dr. Spring is a recipient of the Connecticut Psychological Association’s Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Practice of Psychology, a former clinical supervisor in the Department of Psychology at Yale University, and a media guest on programs such as NPR and Good Morning America. She and her husband live in Westport, CT. For more information go to: www.janisaspring.com. Copyright 2009.