Editor’s note: George Prell persuaded me to post the following story. It’s not what you’d expect on a blog about survival where the focus is on beating the odds against us. Yet one day disaster will strike that ends life as we know it. People will die. Some will be our loved ones. Coping will be a tremendous challenge. But what about in the here and now? – John
Rejoice with them that do rejoice and weep with them that weep. (Romans 12:15)
Meg had been serving as a Christian counselor for three months and was just settling in, just beginning to feel she might make it. There was a walnut and brass name plate on her desk presented at a little tea and cookies party by friends and officers of the church. She would look at it and think, “Is this really me?”
She was equipped with a degree in counseling and had a good solid Bible background. But she felt each person who came to her was a new challenge, a unique individual, and she was certain she could never be complacent, never really relax. Christian service was like that. You had to be open to new experiences all the time.
Besides her formal training, she had been given three simple guidelines by an older woman in the church who had experience as a professional in medical counseling.
Mrs. Wyatt’s guidelines were: “Never have physical contact with a client. Use the client’s last name at all times, and use ‘we’ when referring to yourself, as in, ‘We are here to help you,’” she said. “After all, it is more than a euphemism. You are part of a group–the officers of the church, our prayer support partners and the good intentions of the whole congregation.
“These guidelines are to assist you in maintaining a proper perspective concerning your relationship to the client. You will be tempted to empathize with people to the extent that you seek to join them emotionally in their situations. We women are particularly prone to this behavior. That is how God made us after all.” Mrs. Wyatt cited C.S. Lewis as her closing argument. “I don’t remember his exact words, she said, But his example was of someone trying to rescue a person drowning in a stream. Unless they keep their feet on firm ground they can’t pull someone out of the water. To jump in with them means you both will perish.”
The older woman’s words made sense to Meg, and she found it was not too difficult to work within their framework. In fact, quite often it was difficult to achieve empathy with many of her clients. Their problems were often due to their self?centeredness and egos. Many were petty complaints, family bickering and feuds she felt they should work out among themselves.
Her last client this day could be different, however. His wife had died about a year ago and his family had referred him to her. They felt he had not adjusted well at all, they were quite concerned about his attitude and what they called his "unrealistic behavior".
“Alan Hughes is here,” said the secretary at her door.
A small thin man stepped in briskly. He had short gray hair and wore a blue work shirt that brought out the color of his eyes.
“How am I doing timewise?” he asked?
“Fine, fine,” she said. “A little early, actually.”
“Well,” he said apologetically, “I really hate to take up your time. I only came because my family kept getting on me. I’m really ok, you know.”
“Well, Mr.Hughes,” Meg began, “I hope that is true. But your sister told me that you don’t answer the door when they come to visit you. She said they found newspapers lying in your driveway from weeks ago that you never picked up.”
“Oh, sure, sure,” he said. “I guess I was a little forgetful for a while, but I’m past all that now. I’ve gathered them all up. I’ve been going through them, saving the food ads, things like that. My wife likes to look at the food section. And the comics, too. She’ll have a good time catching up on them for Better or Worse when she comes home.”
Trained as she was, Meg was not prepared for this comment and those that followed.
She saw him looking at the soft drink cup on her desk. She rose and turned towards a little refrigerator on the counter behind her desk. “Can I get you something?” she asked, opening the door
He saw the little red and white half pint cartons in the door shelf. “I’ll take a carton of melk,” he said brightly.
She hesitated at the word "melk.” Had she heard him correctly?
“Milk?” she asked.
“Yeah, that’s right,” he said, “Just a little carton of melk. I just need a taste, really.”
She handed the carton to him and sat down across the desk. “Where to start?” she thought. Initial contact was always a little awkward for her. She was still learning.
“I thought I detected a little accent when you said milk,” she began. “Are you from around here?”
“Oh, yes. Born here, lived here all my life except for some time in the service. Melk is how my wife pronounces it,” he said. “I figure it’s the right way to pronounce it. She and her family say ‘melk.’ They are from
He saw her looking at the watch on his wrist. “It’s my wife’s,” he explained. “Figure I’ll wear it until she gets out of the hospital. They say it’s better to wear them than just put them in a drawer someplace. It keeps real good time.”
Meg really did not like what she was hearing. “Brave little man,” she thought, “You’re trying to carry on without your wife, but this is not the way to do it. Not at all.”
“Mr. Hughes,” she said with as much detachment as she could muster. “How long has your wife been dead? About a year, isn’t it?”
He shifted nervously. “One year and twenty-one days,” he spoke, returning to the reality of it all. “I know what you’re probably thinking. You think I can’t face it and all that, like my family thinks..”
Meg began to protest, but he continued.
“Well, that was really the case at one time, I admit that. The day she died I went to the food store. I had to. There was absolutely nothing to eat at home. One of the last things she made me promise was that I would eat right. She said, ‘Now don’t starve yourself. I’m afraid you don’t know how to make proper meals.’ I hated it when she talked like that, like what would I do when she died? But she made me promise, so there I was at the food store and she had died just that morning.
“I was having trouble driving, still in shock you know. I was afraid to park near anybody, afraid I would bang their car. So I parked way off from everybody and walked into the store. I honestly didn’t know what to do. I got hold of a grocery cart and couldn’t separate it from the stack, you know. I kept pulling and pulling. Finally a clerk came over, a young girl. She pulled my cart free for me.
“I didn’t know how to shop. I was on automatic pilot you could say. I felt like you do in a dream when something is chasing you and you can’t move your legs. Everybody was going around me with their carts. I was so slow. I didn’t have any idea what to buy. My mind was so messed up.”
Meg wanted to say something, pull him away from this agonizing recollection. But she knew it was important for him to continue and for her to listen.
“I thought, ‘What should I buy?’ I saw the bread display and I thought, ‘get some bread. Bread is good for people. You need bread.’ I got whole wheat. She always says white bread is no good for you. I kept doing that, thinking what would she get, and that’s what I bought. I remember I got pickles. She likes pickles, she eats them right out of the jar.”
Meg listened intently, straining to be objective and follow her training. “He’s having trouble with his tenses,” she thought. “He speaks of his wife as if she was still alive.”
“I bought dumb stuff,” he smiled. “Cookies, stuff like that. I even got some Hershey’s chocolate syrup. I had a craving for something that was…”
“Comfort food?” Meg interjected.
“Yeah, yeah,” he agreed. “One thing for sure, I needed comfort. Something to get me through it. Well, I don’t know why I’m telling you all this, really. Except I wanted to show you how bad off I was then. But that stuff is all over now. I wish you would tell my family that. You will, won’t you? No sense them worrying about me so much. I’m ok now. You can see that, can’t you?”
He looked at Meg, waiting for her answer. When she didn’t answer he looked away, staring intently at a glass hummingbird suspended on a thread from the ceiling.
“He’s distancing himself,” Meg thought. “He’s pretending this is all no big deal. How can I tell him it is?”
“Mr. Hughes,” she began, “we really want to help you in this situation, but you must help us. To do that you must face some things about your present emotional state.”
“Too formal,” she thought as she heard her words, as if they were coming from a text book.
“Mr. Hughes, I must tell you how concerned I have become as I listened to your story. I want to thank you for being so forthright with me, for telling it like it is. But now I have to be perfectly honest with you if we’re going to help you. People do certain things when they experience great sorrow at the loss of a loved one. They may wear items of clothing of the person who has died.” She saw him look down at his wife’s watch on his wrist.
“They may continue to speak of their lost loved ones as if they were still alive and try to maintain this fiction by adopting their pattern of speech and so forth. This behavior is to be expected in the early days of the grieving process. But if this continues unabated it can be the sign of a very serious problem. I am a trained Christian counselor, but I am not a psychiatrist. But I will tell you this, there is a term for what I believe we have here.”
She looked at him as she spoke. He was no longer looking at the hummingbird. “The term I am referring to is bereavement psychosis syndrome.”
“Psychosis,” he said, his eyes fixed on hers. “It means crazy, doesn’t it?”
He tried to drink the rest of the carton’s contents. His throat was so constricted that he swallowed with difficulty. “This is good melk,” he said. He reached to place the carton on her desk. It struck the edge and spilled. He tried to wipe it up with his sleeve.
“That’s OK,” Meg said. “I’ll get it up later. It’s OK.”
His eyes were filling with tears. “That’s what you mean, don’t you?” he said. “Bereavement psychosis. I’m crazy with grief aren’t I?”
“Oh no, Mr. Hughes,” Meg began…
His gaze was intense now, as he beamed at her. “Thank you, oh thank you so much. You really do understand! You really do! I am crazy and I don’t know what I’m going to do about it!”
His head was bowed down, his hands in his lap clenching and unclenching.
He began to wail, like a child crying for its mother in the night. “Aaah huh huh, aaah huh huh!” Three notes on a descending scale.
Meg pictured a limp body rolling down steps into a dark basement, an image of helpless sorrow. In a flash, a question came to her, “Will anyone ever love me this much? Will anyone cry like this when I die?”
She rose from her seat behind the desk and came to him, kneeling by his chair. She placed her hands over his little frail hands and squeezed them as hard as she could. “Oh, Alan,” she said. “I am so sorry, I am so sorry.”
Then she began to cry too. Then she began to cry with him.