Dear Prudence

Grieving From the Outside

Prudie counsels a letter writer who’s devastated by the loss of a therapist.

A person lays a flower on a casket.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.

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Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, everybody! (Even if it is not morning where you are.) Let’s do this!

Q. My therapist died suddenly: I had an appointment with my therapist last week and learned through social media that she had died later that day in a terrible accident. I am completely devastated and heartbroken. I had been working through the abuse I suffered as a child with her for several months, and she is the first therapist that really helped me. We had similar backgrounds, and I felt deeply connected to her. She almost felt like a mother to me.

As the condolences and stories have come forward, I found out that she had some connections in my social circle. I am so envious that they got to be friends with her. I also feel so left out of their shared memories, and like I shouldn’t be grieving because I wasn’t one of her real friends.

I have an appointment with another therapist this week, but it feels like it’s too soon, like getting a new puppy the same day your dog died. The idea of opening up to someone new and starting over makes me feel sick and anxious. At the same time, I need someone to talk it over with. I can’t share happy memories with friends, my family doesn’t get it, and my husband is getting annoyed with my frequent crying.

Should I see this new therapist so soon? Also, would it be a bad idea to go to her memorial services? I feel like I’d be intruding, as I wasn’t a friend, just a client.

A: It would not be a bad idea to go to her memorial service! The confidentiality enjoyed by a therapist and patient means only that the patient can trust the therapist not to share private information with others—it doesn’t mean you have to downplay the importance of your relationship with her. Also, memorial services are often open to the public in part to allow everyone—not just the closest friends and family—who knew the deceased the chance to pay their respects. It’s perfectly appropriate for someone’s colleagues, clients, or anyone they got to know through work to attend a memorial service.

Yes, your relationship with your therapist was professional; you didn’t meet at a coffee shop and strike up an impromptu friendship. But your connection was real. You two cared for one another. She helped you immensely. Your loss is real, legitimate, and merited, and you are not taking anything away from her friends by grieving her now. I’m sorry that your family is responding to your (completely understandable shock and devastation) with irritation, especially your husband. Tell him that this is a jarring and disorienting time, and you’re probably going to continue crying on and off, sometimes without warning, for the foreseeable future. He doesn’t have to do anything about it, but crying is a natural, normal response to grief. Tell him that this woman was important to you and you trusted her with some of your most intimate secrets, that it’s dismissive and unkind of him to respond to your tears with annoyance, and he needs to let it go.

I hope you do go see this new therapist, and that you can be honest with them about not feeling ready to open up immediately—that in fact part of the reason you are there is to process the sudden and unexpected death of your previous therapist. You say you feel that you can’t share memories of her with friends, but I think you can, if and when you feel ready. Your relationship with her was real, your memories are important, and you have the right to talk about what this loss means to you with other people.

Q: Trying to help a friend: I have a question about how best to help a friend who is in recovery for alcoholism. She has a medical condition that makes drinking alcohol very dangerous, and she almost died six months ago. She is a fairly new friend, so I don’t know much about her addiction and have only known her in recovery.

Last night we met for a class and she arrived upset because she had had a glass of wine before meeting me and the breathalyzer installed in her car (not court-ordered but installed by her family with her permission) wouldn’t let her drive. She asked me to blow into the breathalyzer to start the car for her. I wanted to help but did not feel comfortable doing that (I only had her word that she had only had one glass of wine). If I had done it and she had gotten in an accident, I would have been bereft. She was upset that I wouldn’t do it, and she wouldn’t accept my offer to drive her home and said she would “figure it out.”

I’m not sure how to repair things. I care about my friend a lot and want to help her, but that didn’t feel like the right way to help. Any advice on how to move forward?

A: The responsibility for “repairing things” between the two of you does not fall on you, by any remote reasonable framing of the circumstances! You are not responsible for this woman’s health, her sobriety, or her failure to circumvent the breathalyzer in her car. (I am skeptical that she had only one glass of wine before meeting you, but that’s neither here nor there, I suppose!) You feel uncomfortable around your friend now—which is totally understandable—but you’ve assumed that you must feel uncomfortable because you said or did something wrong, and that’s not true. You feel uncomfortable because your friend did something wildly inappropriate, then acted like you were in the wrong for refusing to accommodate her totally out-of-line demand. The way to move forward is this:

“We need to talk about what happened the last time we got together. At the time, I was so taken aback that I didn’t make myself sufficiently clear, but let me be clear now: It’s not OK for you to try to make me responsible for managing your drinking, nor was it OK for you to ask me to help you work around the breathalyzer you’ve installed in your car for your own safety. Don’t do that again.”

That will sound really harsh to you, I think! You may have difficulty imagining yourself stating your limits so clearly to a woman who has made outrageous demands of you. And yet it is the only way forward, and it is an enormously sane and sensible limit to have! If she cannot agree to the very easy terms of friendship with you—”Don’t ask me to take a breathalyzer for you”—then friendship will not be possible. You can certainly help a friend cut down on or give up drinking, but that’s not what she was asking of you. She was asking your help to drink and drive irresponsibly, and you don’t need to feel guilty about refusing that.

Q. Re: My therapist died suddenly: I’m a therapist. Don’t go to your therapist’s memorial. She wouldn’t want you there, hearing personal stories about her life. She would tell you going would be a boundary violation. You’re already entrenched in transference, so much so you’re considering not going to a much-needed therapy appointment. Please tell your new therapist all the thoughts you’re having about your therapist’s death.

A: This seems strange to me! I can understand the need for clear boundaries with a patient, but it seems extreme that it would be a “violation” for a grieving patient to hear the sort of personal stories that get shared at a memorial service. No one is going to go into hours of detail—they’re going to share what they loved about her and what they’ll miss. I can understand why a therapist wouldn’t attend a client’s funeral (if nothing else, it might make it obvious that the deceased was in therapy), but I’m not sure about the reverse. That said, you are the therapist, and I am decidedly not! I think it’s worth including this strong no, for whatever it’s worth.

Q. He’s nothing to complain about: This seems like a silly issue, but it is one that comes up almost weekly. My husband and I have a great relationship—I literally have no complaints about him or us. However, it seems that a popular pastime for many folks at work is complaining about their significant others. Most of the time, their issues seem mostly minor and I know everyone needs to vent, so I have no interest in stopping their conversations. I just want to figure out how to participate without seeming like I’m bragging. I don’t want to make things up, but saying things like “I sometimes don’t like how he loads the dishwasher” isn’t going over well either. Neither is “My husband is great! I would not own clean clothes without him.”

These aren’t close friends, and it isn’t a big deal. But I would love to be able to participate in break-room conversations without giving the impression that I think my marriage is better than everyone else’s or that I can’t relate to their issues. Do you have any scripts for when your relationship is wonderful but are being obligated to complain?

A: I’m of two minds here! Part of me resents extremely that your co-workers try to rope every other employee into playing a recurring edition of “My Spouse Is Incompetent So I’m Telling a Bunch of People Who Aren’t My Spouse and Can’t Do Anything About It,” and wants to encourage you to opt out entirely. The other part is aware that plenty of workplaces have weird, slightly maladjusted social scripts that enable everyone to bond, and it’s not always worth going against the room when the stakes are this (relatively) low.

You say the complaints are generally low-grade and come up around once a week, so my instinct is to split the difference when those complaint sessions roll around and offer a vague affirmation rather than invent things your husband does wrong. So if someone says, “It drives me nuts when my partner loses the golden apples of discord (or whatever),” you can say, “God, that’s frustrating/Isn’t that the worst?/I know what you mean” without going into detail about your own home life. If there’s a brief pause, or a little bit of tension where it feels like you’re expected to furnish further details, just let it happen. The room will move on, and you will, I think, feel better than if you got sucked into the conversation further and eventually found yourself making up stories about your husband’s fictional shortcomings.

Q. It was an affair?: I became very close to a co-worker at my job. We worked on projects together and got coffee. I considered him a mentor.

Then came the awkward meet-ups where his wife would randomly show up and all the air would be sucked out of the room. I would be asking him if it was worth it to pursue a post in another city near my boyfriend or stay here, and then she would appear and sit down and stare. This happened at corporate events and at a co-worker’s BBQ. Then my co-worker turned distant and when I inquired, he confessed he was having marital problems and his wife thought we were having an “emotional affair.”

I wanted to bathe in lye afterwards. I have gone over every conversation in my head. It was never sexual—the closest touch was on the hand—but we did talk about emotional topics. He told me he regretted not finishing school before having kids and advised me to not let my relationship with my boyfriend dictate my career path if he wasn’t willing to do the same. I confided in him my fears and worries about my future.

I considered him something close to a father figure; now I am embarrassed to be in the same room as him. How do you move beyond this? We still have to work together, and I see his wife at events. What do I do, beyond yelling, “I don’t want to have sex with your husband” out loud?

A: Oh, wow. To be unilaterally told by a co-worker that you have engaged in an emotional affair because you asked his advice about whether to accept a transfer and talked about how your relationship affected your professional goals is wild, and I can imagine how shocked and bewildered you must have felt at that “confession.” It is not at all unusual to discuss one’s personal life as it relates to work with one’s mentor, and none of the “emotional” topics you described sound inappropriate or irrelevant to your professional development. Your response to his confession—that you’ve effectively ended your mentoring relationship, kept a professional distance at work, and are seeking to minimize further contact and embarrassment—suggests that you have been behaving appropriately and reasonably, and that the “misunderstanding” is entirely his.

So what do you do now? I’m not always a big fan of talking to HR, but if you find that working together continues to pose a serious difficulty, then it may be worth bringing up, especially if his wife escalates from “sitting down and staring” at you to trying to speak with you about her marriage, or if he starts excluding you from projects or important conversations. It may also be worth looking into that post in another city, or another job entirely, just so you feel like you have other options. If any readers have further recommendations on how to protect yourself when a professional mentor and colleague goes off the rails, please share them.

Q. Re: My therapist died suddenly: I went through the same thing five years ago with a therapist I was very attached to. Her death wasn’t as sudden, so she had a colleague put the word out to her patients that they were welcome to come to the funeral. It was very helpful to go, hear the stories about her, and grieve with her people. There are precious few other avenues where you will find support for this loss. My sincere condolences.

A: It’s especially helpful when there’s direction from the therapist’s office about whether or not former patients are invited to attend services. This article is about 14 years old, but it sounds like a lot of other bereaved patients have experienced similar anxieties about attending a therapist’s funeral:

“Often, new therapy focuses on coping with the death of the old therapist. One patient Dr. Beder inherited had attended her late therapist’s funeral, hoping to ease her grief. Instead, she felt like an outsider. Patients feel like disenfranchised grievers at funerals because they aren’t relatives or friends, and some families consider it intrusive when they show up. Also, some patients feel envious seeing the therapist’s ‘real family.’ (Even therapists, who are often in therapy themselves, have trouble coping when their counselor dies.)”

Q. I’m the one that got away: I just learned that a friend with whom I had a one-night stand almost 20 years ago still thinks about it all the time and is overwhelmed with regret for not breaking up with his girlfriend at the time to be with me. He is now married and actually shared this info with his wife. She was surprisingly understanding, but I am having a tough time processing the fact that he felt (and still feels) so strongly. I really never viewed him as anything more than a friend. Do I even have to process it, or should I just carry on ignoring it like I’ve done for the last 18 years?

A: You do not have to do anything about this weird, secondhand information! You are not responsible for how someone else interpreted a decades-old one-night stand. Depending on how close you consider this friend to be, you might say something. If this is more of a “we have a lot of mutual friends and see each other once a month or so” kind of situation, you might continue to ignore it. If it makes you uncomfortable to spend time with him knowing this, then you can take some space from the friendship. You can also tell the person who relayed this information to you, “Hey, I do not want or need any further information on the state of Abimelech’s marriage, or what feelings he may have for me; please don’t share that with me again.”

Q. Re: My therapist died suddenly: My mother is a doctor, and although I enjoy hearing that she’s good at her job when we run into her patients, I would probably be upset if her funeral was full of patients grieving as intensely as it sounds like the letter writer is doing—I can imagine myself wanting to say, “You didn’t actually know her!”

My recommendation is that letter writer limit herself to sending a card to the family. Something like, “So sorry for your loss, she was a wonderful therapist who made a huge difference in my life.”

A: There are a lot of letters coming in on both sides, and I think this one threads the needle between the two perspectives. Letter writer, if you think it might be too painful to hear your former therapist’s friends talking about their personal relationship with her, then it may be best to send a card instead sharing how much she meant to you and focusing on processing your own feelings with another therapist.

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