Retirement and the Post-Olympic Letdown

The quadrennial glut of athletic excellence known as the Olympics is over. The sports fans among us are going through withdrawal–our televisions have been emptied of cyclists, runners, rowers, sailors, wrestlers, swimmers, and the like; no one is counting metals; we don’t check each morning to see how our countrymen fared during late-night competitions. The readjustment to ordinary life will be easy for most of us, but not for those most affected, namely the athletes themselves. A recent article in the Atlantic describes the post-Olympic letdown that plagues many of the competitors. In some cases, the letdown is more than just the usual dip that tends to follow an emotional high. It can spiral down to clinical depression.

Allison Schmitt--She wasn't smiling after the 2012 Olympics.

Allison Schmitt–She wasn’t smiling after the 2012 Olympics.

The most well-known cases of post-Olympic letdown are the high-profile athletes who were particularly successful at the games. The article mentions Allison Schmitt, a swimmer who won five metals and set a world record at the 1012 Olympics. She had no idea why she was so blue, but couldn’t lift her mood by herself and sought counseling. “I didn’t want to ask for help,” she told an interviewer, “but in this situation I found out … that I couldn’t keep fighting it by myself.” Then there is Michael Phelps, who in 2008 won eight gold medals. “I took some wrong turns and found myself in the darkest place you could ever imagine,” he recently told Bob Costas. It took a DUI in 2014 before Phelps finally turned himself around.

I thought that a quote in the article from Caroline Silby, a sports psychologist and former competitive skater, was particularly insightful:

“The instant idolization of their achievements can lead to intense and constant worry about rejection, criticism, and being ‘found out’ that they aren’t as good as everyone thinks—or that they themselves think.”

Successful Olympians are lauded as heroes–praised for their strength, speed, courage, or endurance. Perhaps they are elevated even higher than that. After all, the original Olympians, the mythological residents of Mount Olympus, were the gods of ancient Greece. We are inclined to apotheosis–to regarding others or ourselves as something that is godlike (though, unlike the ancients, we stop short of actually proclaiming that humans are deities). What young athlete, no matter how successful, can live up to that? And the attention and fame are likely to be fleeting. They’ve gotten accustomed to the adrenaline high of the world’s praise, and will have to go though withdrawal when the world turns its attention elsewhere.

In thinking about the post-Olympic letdown, I couldn’t help but also think about those who have retired from the workplace. Most of us attained nothing equivalent to winning a gold metal. Yet we had our share of successes–top salesman, highly regarded manager, highly proficient doctor or lawyer or teacher. We were at it long enough to develop considerable expertise, and we received recognition as a result. We may not have climbed as high as an Olympian, but our time of elevation lasted considerably longer.

And then it was time to come down. Most of us have adjusted remarkably well to leaving the workforce. Yet there can be a tendency to look back wistfully at past glories. Some have considerable difficulty handling the change. One man I know retired a year and a half ago and has been utterly miserable ever since. He doesn’t miss the hassles of his job, but does miss the recognition he received. He sits around the house lacking any sense of direction, ruminating bitterly that he has so little to show for his years of hard work.

His identity was tied to his job, and he hasn’t figured out who he is besides a hard worker. This is the same issue that many ex-Olympians are faced with. They gave their all to their sport, and it came to define them. The advice that sports psychologists give to their clients pertains to retirees as well: find an identity beyond what you’ve been doing up to now, remember that you’re more than what you achieved. Sports psychologist Kristen Keim offers the following to her clients:

“If you’re transitioning out of something, you should always have something you’re transitioning into. You should always have future goals. Even if it’s just setting up trips to go travel. Because stopping cold turkey, that’s a slippery slope.”

Good advice for both ex-Olympians and retirees.

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Do You Need to Grieve Your Unfulfilled Expectations for an Adult Child?

Relationships between parents and adult children can be rocky. Image from

Relationships between parents and adult children can be rocky. Image from

As a therapist, I work regularly with people who are grieving some sort of loss. One of the most difficult losses handle is death of a child. Families used to be much larger than they are now and, prior to the development of effective treatment for infectious diseases, it was common to lose one or more children to illness. Grief was a common experience for parents. Fortunately, most of us haven’t had a child die. We may have had to grieve a child for some other reason, though.

Even before a child is born, it’s natural to have hopes for that child, and those hopes can engender expectations–that the child will develop certain qualities, make certain choices, achieve certain things. We tend to steer our children in the direction of our expectations, but children don’t always follow the path we had envisioned. Our hopes may sour, and in our disappointment we may do things that in turn foster resistance or resentment from the child. Both adult and child can get stuck in a negative feedback loop.

Sometimes the characteristic that must be grieved appears early in a child’s life, such as a chronic illness or massive disability. More commonly, what needs to be grieved doesn’t appear until later, in adolescence or adulthood. I’ve sat with parents distraught over a teen or adult child abusing drugs, acting violently, defrauding others, or taking foolish risks. Some adult children avoid working,  instead continuing to depend on their parents for food, shelter, and transportation long after they should be providing these things for themselves. Fortunately, in many cases things eventually improve, whether through treatment, learning from consequences, or the gradual process of maturation. When negative characteristics persist unchanged for many years, though, it may be that they will never change and need to be grieved.

A couple I know often argue over an adult daughter (let’s call her Amy). As a teenager Amy regularly snuck out of the house to party with friends. She eventually developed a drinking problem and, at age 16, became pregnant out of wedlock. She dropped out of school. She is now is 28 and has had two marriages, both of which ended in divorce. She has had several jobs, but typically either quit or was fired within the first six months. She’s working now, but her bills are delinquent and she finds it difficult to provide the basics for her and her children, in part because she spends too much on alcohol or drugs.

The parents disagree on how to deal with Amy. The mom believes that Amy is trying and just needs a little help to turn the corner. “It would be a real setback if they got evicted again,” she says. “We can help out a little with rent once in a while and can buy a few groceries. We’ll just do it a little while until she gets her act together.”  The dad is an advocate of “tough love” “She’ll never mature if we’re always rescuing her,” he says.

Both mom and dad were assuming that, if they just found the right strategy, Amy would change and become a responsible adult. What if she never does, though? Their efforts to change Amy are accompanied by subtle and not-so-subtle efforts to control her, and that in turn leads to conflict. “Why does she resent us?” They wondered. “We do so much for her.”

In all likelihood, there is nothing the parents can do to change Amy. She may continue to make bad decisions about relationships and jobs; she may continue to seek short-term pleasures that cause her long-term pain. Both mom and dad may need to grieve their expectations for Amy, accepting that the hopes they  have for her may never be fulfilled.

Grieving unfulfilled expectations for a child is not meant to be a strategy to change the child. Sometimes when, after grieving, a parent no longer conveys expectations or tries to control, the child may start being more responsible. Behaviors and attitudes that occasion a parent’s grieving are deep-seated, though, and the child may continue on as before. The goal of grieving is not to change the child but for the parent to become free from the anxiety, turmoil, and sense of desperation that the child’s behavior occasions. And it’s not just parents who may need to grieve. Grandparents also have unfulfilled expectations and have to go through the same journey from denial to grief to acceptance.

When I work with clients whose adult children aren’t doing well, I ask them whether the child’s behavior not only is disappointing but also makes them feel anxious or desperate. I ask whether at times they put their lives on hold because they are so preoccupied with their offspring. I also ask whether they are trying to figure out how to change the child. If the answer to any of these questions is yes, I conclude that they would probably benefit from grieving the hopes they had for that child. They–and anyone in a similar situation who is reading this post–are captive to their unfulfilled expectations, and can be freed by grieving those expectations.

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Death Then and Now: Providential, Suicidal, or Just Regrettable?

A few months ago I read Thomas R. Cole’s book The Journey of Life. I was especially interested to learn about attitudes toward older people throughout U.S. history; here are a few thoughts about the topic. In reading Cole, I noticed that attitudes toward the elderly are closely related to attitudes towards death, so I decided to write a post about that as well.

How should we look at death? Should we welcome it or fear it? Is death a blessing or curse? Are all deaths equal or are some better than others? Does death come regardless of what we do or do we have control over when and how it happens? Contemporary discussions of death often consider such questions, but such questions have been around for a long time.

The Puritans and other Calvinists thought that death could intrude on life at any time. In fact, God followed no discernible order in plucking people from this life and depositing them in the next–young as well as old, rich as well as poor, and healthy as well as sick are regularly death’s victims. Thus, no one should presume that they would have many years remaining. Everyone should prepare for death so as not to be caught unawares. Though in the book of Genesis humans lived hundreds of years, in modern times God rarely bestowed humans with such generous life spans. Late-eighteenth and early nineteenth century Calvinist minister Nathaniel Emmons put the situation like this: “we have great reason to conclude that God has most commonly deprived mankind of the residue of their years, and never allowed one in a thousand or a million of the human race to reach the bounds of life which nature has set.”

Though he was writing less than two hundred years ago, the view of death that Emmons represents is very different from current attitudes. Change was afoot, though. Other writers began suggesting views  of death that are very similar to some 21st century thinking. This alternative view emphasized taking control of one’s health rather than waiting passively for the grim reaper to make his appearance. Cole lists several related movements–“physiological societies, sexual reform, dietary reform, preventive medicine, hydropathy, phrenology, and the initiation of hygiene and physical education in the schools”–that were responsible for such new thinking. This approach optimistically proclaimed that a long and healthy life is within the reach of everyone. What is required was knowledge about health and self-discipline regarding diet and other salubrious practices. Recommended practices included many that have fallen by the wayside but others that are still in use: “vegetarianism, phrenology, temperance,  water cure, sexual restraint, fresh air, and exercise.”  It was generally agreed that “tobacco, coffee, tea, alcohol, and sexual indulgence overstimulated the nervous system, leading to premature exhaustion and death.”

So if you eat right, avoid excess, and exercise you’ll live a long and healthy life. Many experts give essentially the same advice today. The nineteenth-century reformers differed from current thought in some ways, though. For one thing, there was the notion of a “natural death.” The person who took good care of him- or herself would not only live a long and healthy life; death itself would be better, once the time for that eventually came. The person would die naturally, which was thought of as “the orderly, peaceful culmination of a well-ordered life.” The person would die not of some disease but of old age itself, and death would be free of pain and anxiety. I don’t think anyone now makes such a promise; if you want to die without pain or anxiety, current thinking seems to go, don’t die a natural death. Use drugs instead.

Another way in which the nineteenth-century health enthusiasts differed from current health-promoters is that for them long life was not only desirable but was something everyone is morally obligated to pursue. Here, for example, are the words of the phrenologist Orson Fowler, writing in 1847:

“Each of us has but a single life to live. Hence…it should be spun out as long as the laws of nature will allow, and everything which tends either immediately or remotely to induce disease or shorten life, is, to all intents and purposes, murder or suicide.”

Offering guests sugar- and fat-laden sweets? Murder. Skipping the gym and instead being a couch potato? Suicide. Nutritionists and personal trainers nowadays can be nags, but at least they aren’t accusing us of homicide. Sure, injunctions to take care of ourselves are often accompanied by blaming and guilt-induction, but at least the message is toned down somewhat from the nineteenth-century version. That’s something to be thankful for.

Couch Potato: Doing Oneself In.

Couch Potato: Doing Oneself In.

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Amazing Love

Robertson McQuilkin. Image: Columbia International University

Robertson McQuilkin. Image: Columbia International University

I recently learned of the death of  Robertson McQuilkin, former president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary (now Columbia International University). He resigned from his post in 1990 to care fulltime for his wife, Muriel, who had Alzheimer’s.  He was 88. Thus, he must have been about 62 when he left the presidency of his institution. His wife died thirteen years after he resigned to care for her.

His story has interest to me because I left my full-time teaching position at age 64 to help care for my dad. I didn’t make as radical a change as McQuilkin did, since my mom was dad’s main caregiver and I just assisted with what she couldn’t do. I continued to work part-time. After two years, dad had deteriorated sufficiently so that this arrangement no longer worked. He spent the last three months of his life in a nursing home. What would it have been like to do what McQuilkin did and stop working entirely to care for someone? The limited change I made was nothing in comparison to his sacrifice.

McQuilkin said at the time that it was not a difficult decision. He cited his marriage vows, his promise to be there for his wife “in sickness and in health . . . till death do us part.” He also said the following, as quoted in Christianity Today’s notice of his death: “She had, after all, cared for me for almost four decades with marvelous devotion; now it was my turn. And such a partner she was! If I took care of her for 40 years, I would never be out of her debt.”

In his resignation speech at Columbia McQuilkin said “It’s not that I have to, it’s that I get to.” I, too, saw caring for dad as an opportunity rather than a burden–at least I did on my good days. On my bad days, I lost sight of the privilege it was to care for the man who did more than any other to shape who I am. McQuilkin said. “It’s a great honor to care for such a wonderful person.” My thoughts exactly.

What was it like for such a highly regarded professional to leave his career entirely–not just cut back, as I had done? Six years in he wrote the following:

“What some people find so hard to understand is that loving Muriel isn’t hard. They wonder about my former loves–like my work. A college freshman heard that I had resigned as president of Columbia International University to care for my wife. “Do you miss being president?” Scott asked as we sat in our little garden. I told him I’d never thought about it, but, on reflection, no. As exhilarating as my work had been, I enjoyed learning to cook and keep house. No, I’d never looked back” (Christianity Today, Feb 5, 1996)

Robertson McQuilkin, on behalf of caregivers everywhere, I salute you. We all aspire to show to those we care for the sort of unselfish love that you showed as you gave of yourself to Muriel.

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A Mentor From Hell

Dante and Virgil with Brunetto Latini. Gustave Doré

Dante and Virgil with Brunetto Latini. Gustave Doré

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, a mentor is “an experienced and trusted person who gives another person advice and help over a period of time.” We turn to mentors to get some sense of what lies ahead and how to handle it. Often a mentor is someone we hope to be like in the future. I have been a mentor to a number of college students and younger psychologists. I am going to be trained as a mentor for ex-prisoners. I’m looking for a retirement mentor to help me with the transition out of the workforce. We tend to think of mentorship as always being a good thing. Does everyone who acts as a mentor actually offer something valuable, though? Would we sometimes be better off rejecting the advice of someone who speaks with the voice of experience?

These questions came to mind while reading Rod Dreher’s How Dante Can Save Your Life, his account of the wisdom he gleaned from reading Dante’s Divine Comedy. As Dante is descending down through the levels of hell, he is surprised to encounter Brunetto Latini, a great Italian statesman and man of letters whom Dante had admired when Brunetto was alive. Brunetto speaks warmly to Dante, offering him fatherly advice. In particular, he advises Dante to follow his star, saying he will achieve success if he does so. Brunetto is essentially advising Dante to pursue his self-interest. The problem is that Brunetto is telling Dante to do as he had done when he was alive, and following that course had put him in hell. Dreher comments:

“Brunetto is a vain man, a writer and public intellectual who thought the way to pursue immortality was to serve his own cause in his work–and a spiritually blind teacher who, one suspects, sees Dante’s progress as an artist chiefly as a means to hitch himself to a rising star. For the damned, it is always about themselves.”

Dreher contrasts the path that Dante is learning with the one that Brunetto had taken during his life:

“Dante is beginning to see the world through spiritually renewed eyes, but Brunetto, in the eternal desert of hell, will always view things through the eyes of worldly glory. Brunetto thinks he sees clearly, but he is not the sort of man to question his own perception or the story that taught him what to look for in life.”

What kind of mentor should I try to be? Warmth, encouragement, and the gift of my time are all important, but, if the example of Brunetto is to be believed, they aren’t enough. In addition, I need to think in terms of what is best for the person, not just assume as did Brunetto that they should follow the course I took. It’s also essential that I have enough wisdom to point the way not to the shiny baubles of fame or wealth but instead to what has enduring value. Dreher suggests:

“How much happier would young people be if they began their careers thinking not of the fame, fortune, and glory they will receive from professional accomplishment but rather the good they can do for others.”

According to the Apostle Paul, nothing lasts forever except faith, hope, and love. I would like nothing more but to foster these qualities in those I have the privilege of mentoring.

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Look Around. Your Family Consists of–Surprise!–Complex Human Beings

I recently read Rod Dreher’s book How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher wrote the book when he was struggling with depression resulting from family problems. Decades earlier he had moved away from his family in Louisiana and established a successful career as a writer, only to move back again following his sister Ruthie’s death from cancer. After his return, he was perturbed to learn that his sister had been highly critical of him to others. Another problem was that his father expected Rod to change everything that made him different from the rest of the family and was critical of him when he resisted. Rod was quite hurt that his family didn’t accept him as he was. At first, he thought that his dad and sister were entirely to blame. However, his reading of The Divine Comedy revealed that the situation was more complicated than it seemed.

I particularly like the following passage, conveying Dreher’s growing realization that the things he doesn’t like about his sister and dad are closely connected with what he values in them:

[A]ll that is best in my family cannot be easily separated from the worst. The Ruthie who trash-talked me behind my back for leaving home and getting above myself is the same Ruthie whose love of our Louisiana home and its people inspired me to return. The father whose steadfast refusal to recognize the limits and the harm of the family code and its ideology of family and place is the same father who made a good, loving home for Mama, Ruthie, and me. (p. 174)”

Both his sister and father valued close family bonds, tradition, and loyalty. These characteristics were appealing enough to Rob that he gave up his settled cosmopolitan life to return to Louisiana. However, these same qualities prompted Ruthie and his father to react negatively to Rod when in their judgment he failed to embody them.

Rod Dreher. Image from

Rod Dreher. Image from

Rod came to recognize that his sister and father weren’t all good or all bad, but were instead complex human beings who had both good and bad features. Each of us starts life unable to understand such complexity. The infant reacts to the parent as either all good (when that parent is meeting the child’s needs and wants) or all bad (when those needs and wants are being frustrated). Early on, the child can’t see both sides, but flips from “mommy is good” to “mommy is bad” and back again, depending on what mommy has done most recently. Some people never get past such part-person perceptions. Learning to see the whole person, including both liked and disliked qualities, takes psychological maturity, and that takes time. In midlife, Rod was achieving that maturity.

I wrote earlier that “we all need to recognize that there is more to our parents than their parental role if we are to fully be more than just their children.” Dreher’s point is much broader than this. With all family members–not just our parents–we need to see them in all their complexity. They have both good and bad qualities, qualities we like and qualities we don’t like. And many of their qualities, as with Dreher’s father and sister, are neither totally good or totally bad, but have both negative and positive aspects.

In one sense, we don’t want to see all these nuances. We, like Dreher, wish that things were simpler:

What I expected, it was becoming clear, was a return to the innocence and wonder of childhood. I wanted to regain that sense of primal unity with my family, where things were rightly ordered by my father, and to climb into daddy’s lap with Ruthie at day’s end and feel loved and secure. (p. 174)”

Such childhood relationships probably never were as straightforward as we imagine them to have been, and, even if they were, we can’t go back to the former simplicity. I lived most of my adult life several hours away from my parents and siblings, and at such distance it was easy to ignore their faults and appreciate their strengths. My views of them didn’t change much during all that period. For almost four years now, I’ve spent most of my time back in the house where I grew up, helping my parents and having more contact with my brother and sister than I had had for years. As with Dreher, once I was in closer proximity to the family I noticed more faults, shortcomings, and oddities in everyone. I noticed more good qualities as well. I remind myself that I wasn’t the only one who saw more detail when the distance diminished; my faults, shortcomings, and oddities became much more visible to them as well.

My relationships with family members have grown more since I returned home than they did in the years I was away. That’s only been possible to the extent that, with Dreher, I see each family member as the complex human being that he or she is. I hope I’ll continue to be able to accept them for who they are, and hope they have the grace to do the same for me.


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What Life Goals Are Worth Having?

Over 60 years ago, psychoanalyst Erik Erikson identified what he considered to be the key psychological issue of late adulthood. According to Erikson, as someone realizes that death is drawing closer, he or she looks back over the entire span of life. Those older adults who, taking life as a whole, decide that their lives had meaning and that they made a significant contribution develop a sense of ego integrity. Those who see their lives as a pattern of wrong choices, missed opportunities, and failures will have a sense of despair.

Both my personal experience with older adults and my work as a psychologist have brought me in contact with those who were doing (or had already done) the sort of life review that Erikson described. In the last couple decades of my dad’s life he developed a strong sense that his military service in Europe during WWII and what he did for his family and community after returning to Michigan had meaning. On the other hand, some elderly clients I have worked with had despaired as they looked back on the many mistakes and poor choices they had made. It wasn’t easy for them to find specks of gold amidst the dross they believe their life has produced!

Dad in the Military; Meaningful Accomplishments Lead to Ego Integrity

Dad in the Army.  Meaningful accomplishments lead to Ego Integrity.

I recently ran across a study that gives some insight into the sort of life that leads to a sense of ego integrity. In 2009, Belgian researchers Alain VanHiel and Maarten VanSteenkiste had older adults complete a series of questionnaires. One questionnaire measured ego integrity, another measured despair, and two more measured the extent to which the participants believed they had achieved life goals. There were two types of life goals measured: intrinsic goals and extrinsic goals.  Intrinsic goals have to do with achieving autonomy, competence, and relatedness. In other words, a person who has achieved intrinsic goals might decide following a life review:

  • I chose the career, mate, and living arrangement I wanted, not what someone else chose for me (autonomy),
  • I was a capable worker, an effective parent, and an attentive mate (competence), and
  • I had good friends, a loving mate, and children with whom I continue to have good relationships (relatedness).

On the other hand, external life goals have to do with accomplishments that may be significant in their own right but don’t meet core psychological needs. These include fame, financial success, and physical attractiveness. Though there is some correlation between attainment of intrinsic and of extrinsic life goals, it certainly is possible to be high on one set of goals but low on the other.

Two studies found that older adults who achieved intrinsic life goals were more likely than those who hadn’t to experience ego integrity. On the other hand, those who achieved extrinsic life goals without intrinsic life goals were high on despair. The second study also found that having achieved intrinsic goals was associated with less anxiety about death, but extrinsic goal achievement without intrinsic goal achievement predicted more anxiety about death.

Fame, wealth, and attractiveness are not bad things, but they are not the things that satisfy us the most. As we near the end of life, being able to say “I was famous,” “I was rich,” or “I was beautiful” may not matter all that much. It will probably be more important to say “I chose well” (autonomy), “I was capable” (competence), and “I loved and was loved in return” (relatedness). I hope those are the things I’ll be saying when the end of life is near.


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Learning About Life From The Obituaries

Do you read the obituaries? Though I’m getting to the age where I probably should, I seldom do. Just as pedestrians tend to depend on others to look for traffic when crossing the road, I depend on my mom and sister–both of them regular obituary readers–to point out anyone I might know who has died.

Social scientists use the image of a convoy as a metaphor for our progress through life in the company of other people. Some people drop out, some are added, but what’s constant is that we are surrounded by others, some of them steaming along right beside us and some sailing near the horizon, only occasionally coming into view. We don’t need obituaries to inform us that someone nearby in our social convoy has died–we immediately notice they are gone or are soon told of their absence. Obituaries are useful, though, when it comes to those whom we only sight occasionally or who were once nearby but then sailed off in another direction with another convoy entirely. When we see the obituary of someone we haven’t thought of for decades, it evokes both memories of the time we knew the person and curiosity about the subsequent course of his or her life.

Not too long ago, my mom pointed out the obituary of Marian TenHave of Comstock Park, Michigan. I remembered the name but didn’t recognize Mrs. TenHave’s picture. Then again, it’s been a long time since I saw her. She was my first grade teacher in 1955.

Dick and Jane


I thought Mrs. TenHave was a nice person. I liked her and may have even had a little bit of a crush on her. I remember the reading groups in her class; it was my first instruction in reading. When Mrs. TenHave worked with our group I enjoyed having more of her attention than I got in the class as a whole. We learned from the Dick and Jane readers. Those readers have been criticized for their repetitious language, cultural and racial homogeneity, and overly moralistic tone, but none of that bothered me. I could imagine Dick as one of my friends (which says something about the culture in which I was raised). My parents got to know Mrs. TenHave and her husband, and late in the school year we were invited to spend an afternoon swimming at the TenHave cottage on a nearby lake. What first grader who likes his teacher wouldn’t go for that! I can still remember swimming in the lake that day.

Back in first grade I thought of Mrs. TenHave as one of the pantheon of adults in my life, stable and unchanging. I see from the obituary that she was 26 years old at the time and had just gotten married one year earlier. Life was probably changing for her, but the movement wasn’t fast enough for me to discern. According to the obituary, Mrs. TenHave enjoyed entertaining, was an outstanding cook, and liked to sing and to travel. I didn’t know any of that about her. She had three children–all born after I knew her–and eight grandchildren. Then there was this: “Although she was an elementary school teacher early in her career, she first and foremost listed her occupation as homemaker.”

We tend to think of people who were once part of our social convoy primarily in terms of their membership in that convoy. We don’t realize that even back then there was much more to them than what we saw–cook, musician, traveler. When they leave our convoy, we imagine them continuing on much the same course as they were on when we last sighted them. In my mind, Mrs. TenHave was always and primarily a teacher. It’s interesting to learn that she changed course; it’s a reminder that people I once knew haven’t all continued on as I thought they would. I’m also glad to learn something of the person she became. Whatever we imagine of others is only a small part of their story; their lives are more extensive and abundant than we could ever envision. Obituaries aren’t just death notices; they have something to teach us about life.

Marian TenHave

Marian TenHave

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“Bring an Item That Holds Great Personal Value”

The psychology practice where I work part-time recently had a one day retreat. Everyone who attended was asked to bring a bag containing:

1) A favorite hat, scarf, or other personal item (tee shirt?) that you enjoy wearing

2) One additional item that holds great personal value to you.

Finding an item that I enjoy wearing was easy: among the many choices available, I chose my Skoda Auto cap since it reminds me of a trip to the Czech Republic, of my son Elliot (whom I visited there and from whom I got the cap), and of jogging, which I do while wearing the cap.

The “item that holds great personal value” was more difficult. What of my possessions do I particularly value? I considered bringing something that represented my past achievements, such as a diploma or one of the articles I had published. I decided that what I value with each of those is the achievement itself, not the object that represents it. My diplomas have lost their functional value of establishing my credentials since I don’t expect to apply for anything for which I would have to document my education.  Should I lose one of my diplomas, I would look for it but wouldn’t be particularly concerned about no longer having it. I remember what I accomplished, and that’s enough.

I also considered bringing an object that reminded me of one or more people who are important to me. More than half of the twenty or so people who attended the retreat took this route. Several brought rings given them by a parent or grandparent, at least one brought his wedding ring, two brought pictures drawn by a young son or daughter, one brought a family photo, and someone brought a necklace that her grandmother had purchased shortly after immigrating to Canada from Europe. I almost brought my dad’s wedding ring, since that reminds me not only of my dad but of what mattered to him.  would bother me much more than would the loss of a diploma. Still, I wondered: is it really the ring that had great personal value to me? Maybe what’s important isn’t so much the ring itself as the memories it evokes and the person it represents.

I ended up bringing something that seems at first less personal but has features that the diploma and ring do, and more: it not only evokes memories and represents something important, but also is crucial to my life on a daily basis. I brought my driver’s license.

My driver’s license evokes memories. It makes me think of myself at age 16 learning to drive. The local school system had paved a small private grid of roads on which we trainees could practice without having to encounter regular traffic. After a few weeks we ventured out on the nearby streets, each of us accompanied by an instructor. I eventually practiced with my dad and, after a couple months, went to get my license. The road test was nerve-wracking! I was so proud to pass! My first license represented both a significant step towards adulthood and the ability to go places on my own that I could never have reached on foot, by bicycle, or by bus. That ability to go places was more freedom than I had ever known. Having a driver’s license still represents both being an adult in my society (in the U.S., the great majority of adults have licenses) and the freedom to go places without having to worry about bus, train, or plane routes and schedules.

I don’t know how many cars I’ve owned in the past 61 years (15 that I can remember) or how many miles I’ve driven (over half a million for sure). Regardless of the exact numbers, I remember hundreds of roads I’ve taken and places I’ve visited. It may seem that a driver’s license is impersonal, since it is a piece of plastic very much like the pieces of plastic that millions of others carry. But the memories of where I’ve driven are uniquely mine: I didn’t boldly go where no man had gone before, but I went certain places but not others via the routes and at the times I chose. Besides, my card is unique to me in one sense; it has my picture on it.

Besides the memories my license evokes and the status in my society it represents, my driver’s license has value to me in another sense: it is necessary for my daily functioning. I know of several adults older than me and a few younger than me who have had to surrender their driver’s licenses because of medical problems that prevent them from driving safely. In each case, the loss of driving privileges changed the person’s life dramatically. It usually produced a sense of loss leading to feelings of grief. Some were quite bothered having to depend on others for transportation. As I’ve run across more and more people who can no longer drive I’ve become increasingly grateful that I am still a licensed driver. I hope to remain that way for lots of years yet. Does my driver’s license hold great personal value for me? Yes, I treasure it.

The Cap and the License

The Cap and the License

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Dealing With Bereavement: Irrational Thoughts and Hope

In Joan Didion’s memoir of grief, The Year of Magical Thinking, she reports that her thoughts were often irrational. Her husband John Gregory Dunne died on December 30, but, according to her, “It was deep into the summer… before I recognized that through the winter and spring there had been occasions on which I was incapable of thinking rationally. I was thinking as small children think, as if my thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome.”

She first noticed such magical thinking the night after John died. She didn’t want anyone to stay with her that night. Later, she realized that at some level she believed that what had happened was reversible and she needed to be alone so he could come back. A few weeks later, when she was giving away his possessions, she found herself unable to give away all his shoes. She reports, “I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need shoes if he was to return.” In another instance of illogic, she wanted an autopsy, but later realized the reasoning behind that desire: she hoped that, if the autopsy revealed that the problem was something simple, the doctors might be able to fix it.

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Didion didn’t reveal these thoughts and others like them to anyone, so she knew even while having them that others would think them peculiar. She mostly regarded them the same way herself, but they still affected her actions. Some of the thoughts she describes were not so much actual beliefs as suspicions hovering around the edges of consciousness–that she allowed John to die, that he abandoned her. These latter two have come up fairly often in my work with people who are grieving. I’ve noticed that believing that one is responsible for someone’s death impedes progress through the process of grieving. The person has often been told by others that they weren’t to blame, but the thought lingers. Why is it so hard to shake? Perhaps it’s a matter of the childlike magical thinking that Didion saw in herself; young children haven’t learned the limits of their powers, and thus may think that they could make something happen just by a thought. We are probably all susceptible to such magical thinking if under enough duress. When a loved one dies, magical thinking accuses us of not having wished hard enough for them to live.

Interestingly, Didion didn’t permit herself another type of thought that, in marked contrast to such self-accusations, comforts many grievers. She didn’t let herself think that we survive death. Whether it be the Christian’s bodily resurrection, popular imagination’s ghosts and spirits, or the Hindu and Buddhist concept of reincarnation, a great many of us think that there is something of us that endures past the grave. Such beliefs lead naturally to hope for some contact from the other side or for being reunited some day. Didion doesn’t seem to believe any such thing. She says she no longer believes  in “the resurrection of the body,” the phase from the Apostles Creed she was taught during her Episcopal upbringing. She doesn’t think it possible to get messages from the other side. She doesn’t believe in God. And, though she admits that on a few occasions after John’s death she asked him what to do, “these pleas for his presence served only to reinforce my awareness of the final silence that separated us.”

I recently talked with a woman who lost her husband and both parents in the past year. She comforts herself on bad days by imagining these three people “in a better place.” She or other family members have experienced what seemed to have been communications from beyond the grave, and these have been quite consoling. What would she be like if she didn’t have such comforts? Anyone bereaved can have the sort of irrational thoughts that Didion describes–that the lost one is coming back, that death is reversible if we just do the right thing. I wonder, though, whether Didion’s rejection of any sort of afterlife made her particularly prone to such thoughts. Maybe its part of our nature to hope that grief will end in joy, that the dead will rise or we’ll be with them one day. If we deny ourselves such hope, perhaps our minds will generate hope anyway, whether what they come up with is believable or not.

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