For many years she taught elementary school children. Then, 7 years ago, her husband died and she retired shortly thereafter. Now she teaches people like us how not loose our minds as we move through the process of processing the death of a loved one.
She smiles. “So,” she says, looking at each of us in turn. “How are you two doing?”
In our session in January we had discussed some things that I had read Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking, which chronicles her journey through the year after her husband died unexpectedly of a heart attack while they were eating dinner at home.
So I tell her
I am tired. I am just really very tired of Nathaniel being dead. I want him to stop being dead so everything can go back to normal.
She smiles. And nods. She understands.
I mention something Didion says in her book. She could not give away her husband’s shoes, because he would need them if he came back…
Richard sort of interrupts me and starts to talk. This is typical ADD behavior and I understand him, and it is OK.
He begins to tell her about the evening popcorn ritual. There were three snap-lock containers with tight-fitting lids: a round one (Richard’s), a tall rectangular one (mine), and a shorter, fat square one (Nathaniel’s), each with our name on it. Every morning Richard popped the popcorn for that evening, put each person’s share in his or her container, snapped the lid down, and sat it on top of the refrigerator.
Richard continues on with the morning popcorn routine, only now just two containers sit on top of the refrigerator. Richard cannot bring himself to take Nathaniel’s name off his container and use the container for other things. It sits unused on a shelf in the pantry.
It’s his container.
More magical thinking.
I tell her about what happened during the brief cold snap a few weeks ago. Richard wanted the electric blanket for the bed and asked me to find it. I was sure I had given it to Nathaniel the winter before so he would be warm. His room gets rather cold at night. I tore apart his bed to look for it. The electric blanket was not on his bed, and so I began to remake the bed.
Nathaniel was obsessive about his bed. It had to be perfect. All of the blankets had to hang exactly the same length on all sides. No wrinkles were allowed. The comforter or bed spread had to be exactly even all the way around. Sometimes he spent 30 minutes making his bed. As sick as he was when he walked out of his bedroom for the last time on December 12, 2010, his bed was perfectly made. Nobody has slept in the bed since then, except the cat.
As I got the comforter back on his bed, I thought to myself …
Nathaniel is going to be so upset at me for tearing into his bed and not putting it back the way it was. He will not be happy at all.
More magical thinking.
She smiles, and nods. “One of the hard things I had to come to grips with,” she said, “was that I did not have to do everything the way Louis [her husband] would have done it. I could do it the way I wanted, and it was OK.”
But she does much more than just smile and nod at us. Her wise words have helped to keep us sane. Technically, she was supposed to cut us loose in January, but we saw her this month and we will see her again in March.
After every visit I have waited for Richard to say, “I don’t think we need to come back,” especially since I had a hard time getting him to agree to see her the first time. And after every visit, when she says, “Shall we schedule another appointment?” He says, “Yes.”