It is natural to grieve after a relationship ends. And this grief can take a while. But sometimes it takes too long: a person feels that the time has come to move forward with life and yet they cannot. I want to tell the story of Michael*, who struggled with this problem. His relationship with Anna was short-term, and had been over for a year before he came to see me, but his grief was unending. This problem formed a recurring pattern in his life. Michael's story suggests that when one becomes stuck in romantic grief there may be more involved than the sorrow of lost love.
Ludwig Wittgenstein characterised philosophy is an art of paying attention, captured with the words “Don’t think. Look!” The same goes for therapy. In the second session with Michael I asked questions that were designed to take him into his pain so that he could look closer and describe what he saw. Of course I needed these descriptions if I was to understand his problem, but I hoped that Michael might pay better attention to his own experience and come to his own insight with minimal prompting from me. That’s where the real work happens in philosophical therapy. The dialogues below are paraphrases which capture moments from our work together over several months.
ME: So when you imagine her not loving you anymore – say, you imagine her kissing somebody else – you get this pain in your heart?
MICHAEL: Yes, this sadness, as it has done for a year now, just aches all through my chest. That’s the pain that won’t go away.
ME: Just in your chest?
MICHAEL: The pain reaches down into my stomach too, kind of.
ME: In what way – what does it feel like in your stomach?
I expected Michael to say that he experienced a weight or some other sensation that typically goes with loss, but I was surprised.
MICHAEL: It feels like tension. Like churning, boiling.
ME: Really? What else do you feel as you imagine her falling in love with somebody else?
MICHAEL: It’s strange, but I feel like I'm falling backwards.
ME: What is your heart doing?
MICHAEL: It’s really racing!
Often we are so alienated from our own experience that we form misconceptions about it. This was true of Michael.
ME: I wonder whether you’ve got your labels wrong?
MICHAEL: What do you mean?
ME: A racing heart, a churning stomach, a feeling of falling …that doesn’t sound like sadness. Or rather, not in a straightforward way. It sounds more like anxiety.
Michael thought for a moment.
MICHAEL: But it’s over with Anna, there’s no going back, so I’m not anxious about what might happen, but rather I’m sad that nothing more will happen.
ME: Is it sadness you feel? You keep calling it pain.
MICHAEL: Well, yes, it’s very much pain.
ME: And this pain has the physical qualities not of sadness, but of anxiety?
Michael agreed with me, but after a year of telling himself that he was simply sad when he felt this way it was hard for him to interpret his experience differently. Fortunately he was willing to entertain other possibilities.
MICHAEL: Perhaps it is anxiety. If so then what do I do?
ME: I said in our last session that an emotion is like a compass. Why don’t we follow the anxiety where it leads and see what it shows?
We spent the following sessions doing just that, and as we did so Michael's inner life came increasingly into view for him. As a disciplined act of attention therapy performs the function which Kafka ascribed to a good book: it becomes an axe for the frozen sea within. Emotions and feelings show themselves, they are seen, insight happens. Dreams become lucid. This happened with Michael, and sometime later he began a session by reporting a dream.
MICHAEL: You know, it’s rare for me to dream. I only do it a couple of times a year, and now I’ve had four in the last month! But this one really got to me. And I felt like I understood its meaning.
ME: What happened?
MICHAEL: It all took place in one room, in an old, decrepit house. Throughout the dream the house continued to crumble and rain poured in through the roof, soiling the mattresses. Oh yes, the floor was covered in dirty old mattresses. I sat, and slept, on one of them. There was no toilet so I had no choice but to urinate on one of the other mattresses.
ME: What did you feel as you did that?
MICHAEL: I was on my own in the room, but it was like I was seeing myself through another’s eyes – I felt dirty, ashamed, humiliated by my act. But I had no choice.
ME: What else happened?
MICHAEL: There was dirt everywhere from the crumbling of the house. I walked over to the fireplace and found a pair of glasses. This is what I remember most; standing there looking at these glasses and knowing that their owner was dead. Long dead. I got the sense that this…intimate possession of theirs should make me feel care for them, or at least interest me or something. But it didn’t. Instead I found the glasses ugly. So I just felt nothing. But this lack of feeling disturbed me and made me sad. I realised that there were other possessions like the glasses in the room, belonging to other dead people. But I felt the same neutral way about them. Again I was saddened by this. Then suddenly there was something horrible – I don’t know what - coming for me down the chimney. I rushed to the other end of the room and put my back to the wall to protect myself, but strange holes materialised behind me like mist and dead spirits within them grabbed at me from behind, trying to drag me backwards into the holes.
What else happened?
MICHAEL: Well there were two other parts to the same dream. One of them took place in the same room, but I don’t know when. I was trying to teach the piano to Anna’s young son. I thought that she would really like this. But his father came and took him away, so it was all a waste of time. In the other part, I was at my old high school in the concert hall, playing an impressive piano solo just like I did when I was young. People liked me because of it. But as strange as this sounds, I was also located elsewhere at the same time. It is hard to describe: my step-father Daniel wanted to video-record the solo, but I had started before he arrived so he was running up a hallway to get to it in time. The perspective in this part of the dream was from that of the video recorder – I was seeing and hearing everything from the perspective of the recorder. The sound of my solo could not be heard because Daniel was still running up the long hallway. He didn’t get to the performance in time. Nothing was recorded, and I had this strong feeling that it would all be forgotten…and, that I would have nothing to show of who I was.
Michael’s dream was striking. One of the things that was so powerful about it was that he awoke not only with a vivid memory of it, but with an immediate interpretation which became more clear as the day wore on.
MICHAEL: Last time you suggested that I was very frightened of death.
MICHAEL: And I disagreed with you. In fact I felt a bit angry with you. But I kept thinking about it and two nights later I had that dream.
ME: You think the dream is about death?
MICHAEL: Yeah. I used to work in the nursing home section of a private hospital. The old people would often soil themselves. The nurses were very busy and could be so cold with them when this happened. I felt like my job was to shove these people around – I soon quit because of that. But while I was there I would make a point of looking these people in the eye whenever I had to do something "to" them. Some of them looked permanently humiliated. I think that peeing on the mattress was symbolic of this, of the fear I now have of old age: of its poverty and humiliation.
ME: And its impending death?
MICHAEL: Yes, that’s the main meaning of the dream. The crumbling house. The dead people’s belongings. The malevolent vague thing coming for me. The dead spirits trying to pull me backwards into the void – into death.
ME: These are striking images, and it appears that you and I interpret them in the same way. What about values in the dream? I sense that value was an important theme.
MICHAEL: Yes, you’ve spoken about my need to feel special. To rescue others such as Anna, even after she and I split. So I thought about that too. Nobody cared for the dead person who owned those glasses. It made me sad. It will be like that with me one day; nobody will remember - or care about - me. My possessions, the ones that mean a lot, and even my clothes which have accompanied my life and which smell of me, these will all be thrown away without care or even in disgust. I tried to be special to people with my piano solo but nobody heard it – it was lost, as though it never happened. As though I never happened.
ME: Being special won’t save you from annihilation?
Michael paused and was thoughtful.
MICHAEL: No…it seems not.
We paused some more. I don’t know what Michael was thinking, but he was absorbed and I did not need to know - it was more important that he do his own work. I sat quietly and privately with my own impressions of the dream. After a time Michael came back to the present and we continued the conversation.
MICHAEL: So that's my dream.
ME: And what about the part with Anna’s son?
MICHAEL: I don’t know.
ME: It sounds like you tried to make yourself valuable to Anna through teaching him, but it did not work. He was taken away by his father and you were left alone in the decaying room, so the love of Anna did not come and save you from dying and being forgotten.
The corners of Michael’s eyes were wet. These things hurt, but precisely for this reason we had to push on. As I said before, an emotion is a compass.
ME: You resisted my suggestion last week that you are deeply afraid of death. Actually I spoke of a tangle of death, aloneness, and meaninglessness. You say that you felt angry at the suggestion. I could tell this at the time and it did not surprise me – you were angry when I pointed out such fears because you work hard at avoiding your own awareness of them. You try push them out of consciousness, and when they rise as physical sensations then you try a second strategy: you deceive yourself about their nature. What I mean is that when you first came to me you said you were grieving endlessly for lost love, but it seems to me that you are not suffering from sadness alone but also, very much, you are suffering from anxiety. From what some people call existential anxiety.
MICHAEL: Anxiety over death, loneliness, and meaninglessness?
ME: Yes. Each of us has this fate: we live for a time and then we die. That is the human condition. We hope that our lives have meaning but secretly we fear they might not, especially in the face of death. This secretly terrifies us and so we try to keep it secret even from ourselves.
MICHAEL: So I’m not grieving Anna? Instead I'm using grief to avoid the true nature of my pain – my anxiety about my own death, about not mattering to anyone.
ME: Perhaps grief is less dangerous for you than such anxiety, and so you apply the wrong label to your anxiety, pretending that it is grief. Your grief over Anna is real, wouldn't you say, but it also seems to function as a self-protective distraction. In this sense, perhaps it’s wrong of you to say that you cannot get free of your grief; rather it is something you refuse to let go of.
MICHAEL: Yes, perhaps I am scared of dying. I’m certainly scared of being unloved, of not mattering to anybody. Of getting old that way. Of being dead and forgotten that way.
Although the above words were spoken slowly, with pauses between each point so that we might digest their meaning, we had said a lot. We sat in silence for a time, and then Michael spoke.
MICHAEL: How does a person deal with this?
The rest of the conversation is a topic for another day.
Socrates said that to do philosophy is to prepare for death. This is because to do philosophy is to strive to live well. If we can face death as the fundamental limit of our life then we may find the courage to live a life of meaning rather than of mere self-protection during this short time that we have. On the other hand when we simply run from anxiety over death then we also lose out on living. Such running also affects our way of being with or toward others: we reduce them to performing the function of defending us against our fears. This was the lesson that Michael learnt, and the substance of our work aimed at helping him face his anxiety rather than him trading the quality of his life for respite from his fears. My purpose was not to convince Michael of a philosophical thesis about himself. I used the notion of "a tangle of death, aloneness and meaninglessness" because I wanted to point in the direction of his fundamental fears rather than specify their exact nature. These fears showed themselves through careful exploration. Irvin Yalom wrote that the physical fact of death destroys, but the idea of death can save us, and this was the case for Michael when he finally came to terms with it.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Image: Max Klinger, Isle of the Dead
*'Michael' is a pseudonym. This story is of a true experience, but all identifying details have been changed to ensure anonymity.