Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Losing a Therapist
by Roseana Auten

My therapist, Kathleen, died of cancer this year. It's devastating, to be sure, and perplexing. The very person I'd go to for support and to work through my loss is gone. And the fact that our intimate relationship was also a private one makes me an outsider in the community of Kathleen's mourners.

I'm sure it's difficult for someone who's not been in therapy to understand what it is about "just talking" that changes not just the present or the future, but even the past. Or to understand a therapist, like Kathleen, who was not in the business of offering advice or strategies, nor so much as a snappy comeback to try out when the family Thanksgiving gets rough. And isn't it a popular belief that depression is more of a chemical thing anyway -- more easily licked with a prescription pad than with an hour-a-week blathering in someone's office? 

Kathleen didn't believe most depressed people had something wrong with their brain chemicals. "It's not like a hurricane, a wave that comes out of nowhere," Kathleen said of that so-called noonday demon, depression. She spoke in lulling, but authoritative, Alabama- accented tones. One person at her memorial service observed, "When Kathleen told you she was from Alabama, it sounded like music."

I'm imagining her now, tucking herself into the wing chair across from me, raking back her wavy, salt-and-pepper hair that she was growing out the entire time I knew her. "How's by you?" she'd say sometimes at the beginning of the hour. A quaint expression, and humorous, too, given the circumstances.

More often, she'd open our time together with quiet -- a maddening stillness. If this were music, I'd have to be the lead instrument. I'd cast about many times, feeling "unprepared" somehow, thinking as I jabbered, Lord, this is an expensive way to discuss ephemera. Other times yielded the moments that I came to therapy for in first place. But not without making a lot of noise first.

I distinctly remember what I talked about the last time I ever saw her. I had just read a magazine article about a woman -- a mother and business owner -- who was stricken with a rare form of abdominal cancer, and what happened to her and her family because of the illness. There was a tenuousness to it all; the woman's victories were only meted out in months before she would face the next hurdle, or the next and so on. But for the moment, life was for the living. What startled me about this story was its subtext; the cancer's specter certainly clouded the future, complicated the present, but also devilishly wiped out the past. It was talk therapy's opposite. "You can't even claim anything about yourself before you had cancer," I remarked to Kathleen. "It's like it erases everything about you, your history, anything you ever did before you got sick." 

I have no idea why I was telling Kathleen about this, what it had to do with anything. It was just a lot of talk. And I don't recall what her response was, if any. I just remember my words roaring in my head about two weeks later, when a close friend and colleague of Kathleen's called to say Kathleen had a cancerous tumor removed from her abdomen and would be halting her practice for a while.

I wrote her shortly after that, expressing my shock and hopes for recovery. "I feel strange about the fact that at our last session, I talked about the effects of catastrophic illness -- cancer -- on people's lives," I wrote. I bet it was strange for Kathleen, too. She had done her doctoral dissertation on how people's spiritual and emotional lives affect their recovery from serious illness. 

She wrote back, to say she had recovered nicely from surgery and planned to start her practice again. But when I asked a mutual friend about Kathleen's prognosis, the friend admitted, "I don't think it's very good."

Kathleen often spoke of life being a kind of drama that was always evolving on a stage. I anticipated the impending loss, but in the way you don't discuss the proverbial pink elephant in the room. "I am thinking of you and your family right now," I scrawled on a Christmas card.

For months after that, I couldn't bring myself to say anything more. Our relationship had not been of the world, and that's the way it had to stay. Kathleen had been a part of my life, but I was not a part of hers. It wasn't right to offer myself for succor, nor was she capable of comforting me through her dying. There was no part for me in the final act of her life.

I watched the obit pages. It was horrible, the night I finally saw it there, the notice of Kathleen's passing.

Kathleen had planned her own memorial service. It was held in a memorial garden constructed in amphitheater-like tiers of limestone, and we sat on them as her friends and family retold funny stories about her, read poems and played music on a little stage before us. I knew no one there, except for the mutual friend. But even the friend could not connect me to the rest of Kathleen's survivors. 

My discomfort and grief swelled until I decided to relieve it by, what else, talking. I stumbled to the microphone, I could hardly get the words out, but I did it. I repeated the only piece of actual advice I'd ever gotten from Kathleen. I once mentioned to her how difficult it had become to eat in restaurants with a bucking toddler. Reflexively, she said, "Just go to Mexican restaurants. You won't bother anyone there." And you know, it turned out to be good advice. 

Following the end of the service, several strangers who also turned out to be Kathleen's clients greeted me and thanked me for speaking up. It didn't change the fact that we would remain strangers, but it changed something, I'm sure of that.
Roseana Auten has written for Child, Parents, Fit Pregnancy, Texas Monthly and Glamour (back when the magazine's grande dame, Ruth Whitney, was the editor). She reported on education for the Austin Chronicle for five years and has been a contributor to that publication for many years. She is married, with a 5-1/2 year-old daughter.