We tend to talk about grief and the grieving process as if it were a separate category of emotional experience altogether, different somehow from all the others. Because it means confronting death, mortality and ultimate loss, the grieving process does have a uniquely large and pervasive impact on our psyches; from another point of view, however, grief is but one of the emotions and when it becomes unbearable, we will ward it off in our characteristic ways. In other words, when people go through the grieving process, you will often see them resort to their habitual defenses. As discussed in my post on the tenacity of defenses, as we grow up, our modes of warding off pain become entrenched; even when we’ve evolved and developed new ways of coping on a day-to-day basis, when confronted with a feeling as difficult to bear as grief, we may fall into the familiar rut of our oldest defenses.
We had to put our dog Maddy to sleep yesterday. While it’s not quite the same as losing a human member of our family, she has been a beloved part of our lives for the last ten years. Her death has made me notice how we’re all responding to our grief, reflective of our particular defenses, and in not such unusual ways, I believe. It has also stirred a lot of memories from 20 years ago when, within the space of a few months, my dear friend Tom Grant died of kidney cancer at the age of 45 and my mother-in-law Eva, then in her late 50s, succumbed to metastatic breast cancer. These untimely deaths — Tom and his wife had two small children and my mother-in-law was fit, dynamic and vitally alive — have been among the major losses in my life and on occasions such as Maddy’s death, the feelings I had back then are still very much present to me.
Splitting and Projection
For the last year or so, Maddy has had a laryngeal problem common in older Labrador Retrievers; she was scheduled for corrective surgery on Monday. In the four or five days leading up to the surgery, her condition had deteriorated badly and she basically stopped eating. We thought it might have to do with her medications, but when we took her to the surgeon Monday morning, he immediately said, “This has nothing to do with her larynx problem.” Her lungs were so full of fluid he couldn’t even read her X-ray. He believed she had some fatal condition and presented euthanasia as an option, although he told us that congestive heart disease, a treatable condition, might also be to blame.
Maddy’s loss of appetite had filled me with dread. Both my friend Tom and my mother-in-law lost their appetites as their conditions worsened; I felt sure Maddy had some form of cancer and I wanted to have her put to sleep that day — to prevent further needless suffering, I told myself. The rest of the family felt otherwise and wanted to make sure of her condition first before taking such a step. I felt very rational and level-headed but kept my opinions to myself. This was my defense: in order to evade the pain of loss, I split it off and projected it into the rest my family for them to carry; I became a bit detached and efficient, as I am wont to do at such a moment. I’m good in crisis situations; my defenses help me put emotion aside and do what needs to be done, though in this case, it stopped me from feeling my own grief.
Extensive tests at the vet school revealed late-stage metastatic cancer. No hope of any kind and we had her put down. The rest of the family felt relieved to know the actual cause, to accept her death without wondering if treatment might have helped her; I could see that my opinion had been the “wrong” one, reflecting my defensiveness rather than clear thinking.
It seems fairly clear now that our trusted vet missed a lot of warning signs that should have told him Maddy had a more serious illness than he believed. There’s a great temptation for all of us to blame him for what happened, though we realize the cancer was so pervasive that even had he spotted the symptoms earlier, she still would have had to die. Tom’s physicians took months to identify his condition as kidney cancer, mis-diagnosing it as a respiratory problem and later putting him on blood thinners to avoid clotting in the lungs. My mother-in-law’s physician recommended that she not aspirate the breast lump he found because he believed it to be benign like others she’d had before. By the time he realized his mistake, she’d advanced to Stage 4. In both of these cases, the temptation to turn on the physicians was strong; neither Tom’s wife and nor my father-in-law succumbed to that temptation.
I’m sure many of you have had similar experiences, either in your own families or with people that you know. Sometimes a medical malpractice lawsuit is justified; in other cases, the blame and anger allow grieving family members to evade their pain, at least at moments and for a limited time. I think it’s a special kind of projection where the “bad” feeling inside (unbearable grief) becomes a “bad” object outside (evil and incompetent physician). And although I’ve tended to discuss blaming as a characteristic defense against shame, it has broader defensive uses. In this case, blaming the vet would allow us to feel angry instead of terribly sad. The mechanism is akin to one I described in an earlier post, where hatred and anger may function as a powerful kind of psychic glue holding us together when we’re experiencing the disintegration anxiety stirred up by unbearable emotion.
We’re all feeling sad and sorry for ourselves. Despite what some of you dog-owners out there may believe about your own pet, Maddy was the greatest dog in the world. It seems unfair that we should have had to lose her; it seems wrong that only two weeks ago, she was her normal energetic self; her death seems so ill-timed, given everything else (i.e., normal life) that we have on our plate. I believe that a lot of rage and anger usually lurks behind self-pity; in the case of mourning, however, it seems a very natural response, a way of offering oneself sympathy and consolation. Only when it becomes excessive does it become a psychological obstacle to the grieving process. You will recognize this in other people by the impatient way they begin to make you feel. Enough already, it’s time to move on. Everybody has to deal with loss at one time or another … you’re not unique.
The truth is, Maddy had a long and wonderful life. The average lifespan of a lab is 10-12 years and Maddy had recently turned 12. She was beloved and in good health for nearly all of that time. We were fortunate to have had her as a part of our family for those years, but death comes to all in the end. Time to grieve now. For us, as for most people, the grieving process will be neither quick nor easy. You can’t rush your way through it; part of mourning involves re-living your memories of the loved one and grieving for the loss. The only way to process your grief is simply to bear with it. The passage of time alone can make it more bearable.
Finding Your Own Way:
Everybody has to deal with death and grieving at some point or another. When you look back, can you see your characteristic ways of coping with the pain? Did you resort to any of the defensive maneuvers I’ve described?
What about friends and family? When you think about other people you know who’ve lost a loved one, can you see how they coped with it in their habitual ways? Maybe you’ve known someone who became embroiled in a medical malpractice lawsuit; whatever the suit’s merit, can you see how it absorbed that person and took up the space that might otherwise have been occupied by grief? Did they eventually reach the point where they could bear it?