The other day, a client walked in, seething with anger: “My father is dying, and my sister sits by his bedside talking about her latest crush! She has gone stark, raving boy-crazy since Dad got sick, and I’d smack her if I could.”
Their father had been diagnosed with late stage lung cancer four months ago, and was on hospice during these final months. As I validated her anger, it began to spill out. She was angry with her father for having smoked all these years, for not having a life insurance, for not having saved more money, and most of all, for not having been a more loving and kind father. She was angry with her mother for being so paralyzed with grief that she needed to be reminded to even eat or shower. My client was angry that she was the older daughter, and now, she felt like she was the only responsible member of the family. She felt the burden of her family on her shoulders throughout her waking hours and it kept her up at night as well. She was unable to give herself permission to fantasize about a relationship or even think about a future beyond the next few months. It irked her that she felt trapped in the role of “the responsible one,” but what really got under her skin was “I can’t believe my sister is having fun at a time like this.”
Interestingly enough, I had begun to see this client on the anniversary of my friend R’s death, and a theme began to emerge. Three years ago, my friend R was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer. She had been estranged from her family since her late teens, when she first came out. Three of her dear friends (myself included) became her caregivers during her last months. We cooked for her, cleaned her house, took her on doctor’s appointments, and always came prepared with stories to cheer her up. As her health declined and pain levels increased, the outlook got bleaker and the end came closer. As R bravely faced down the ticking clock, each of her caregivers faced grief in their own way. One of us ate a lot, another worked too much and the third flirted her way through the grief.
In the face of ongoing and imminent grief and faced with the mortality of someone we loved, we each coped in our most characteristic manner. For one, food provided sustenance and nourishment; it was a way of trying to fill the hole, the inescapable void that would be left by our friend’s death. For another, work was an easy out, a way of filling the hours, keeping the mind busy and numbing the soul to the grief that was welling up inside.
Flirting was the third strategy and one that was undeniably cheery in the face of such sadness and loss. At first, I was mildly affronted by this particular strategy, and struggled not to express my disapproval, even though I’m not sure how successful I was. However, as the weeks turned into months, I began to recognize it for what it was: a coping strategy, completely unlike mine, and yet, just as finely conditioned by experience.
Flirting is a playful art and our prior experience predicts our enjoyment of it and continued participation in it. It is an amusement, a suggestion of intimacy, and an invitation for contact and connection. Flirting can open the door to romance or sexual activity, or just be an end in and of itself. The joy of flirtation lies in being perceived as sexually attractive by someone we might consider as sexually attractive. And in this manner, the act becomes life-affirming, by affirming our own presence as delightful and desirable.
Sitting with a loved one while we hear death knocking on the door; counting down the days, weeks, months, we are each confronted with our own helplessness and our own mortality. To stay active and present as caregivers demands a lot from us. How can we stay present for our loved one to complete their end of life tasks, while we still grapple with our own anger and sadness, numbness and denial, fear and overwhelm?
And so it is, that sometimes we just give in. And we each give in, in the way that is most familiar to us. We turn to Anger, Sadness, Food, Alcohol, Sex, Drugs, Television, Work: whatever we can drown in, whatever we can sink into, whatever we can hide in, run to, bury ourselves in, escape into, numb with.
My client sank into her anger, because it was familiar. It gave her some bearings, it gave her something to hold onto, when it felt like her world was crumbling around her. She was angry with God for giving her father cancer, for making them all watch him suffer. She was angry that her mother was paralyzed by grief, leaving my client to face the major medical and financial decisions all alone. Most of all, she was angry that she felt alone in her grief. She also discovered that she was afraid to give up her anger, because it made her feel alive.
And there it was: She saw that, for her, anger felt life-affirming in the face of death, a coping strategy that wasn’t working as effectively as she had hoped because it was reinforcing her feeling of loneliness. Struck by this insight, she made the connection to her sister’s new-found boy-crazy behavior. “She’s just flirting to stay alive amidst my father’s dying process. And maybe she could use some help in seeing that she is grieving, so she can feel supported too.”
It is not unusual for people to respond to death and dying through engaging in life-affirming activities like flirtation, romance, new relationships, procreation, art, creativity, gardening and more. When we have the support to grieve, we can find ways to grieve consciously without numbing it or drowning in it, and without sinking into old coping habits that have outlived their usefulness. And so it is, that in the therapeutic realm, we flirt with life and death, and together we make meaning of this business of living and dying.