IFPE panel, fall 2014, San Francisco The Myth of the Expected Loss: How clinicians interact with their mortality in clinical and professional practice

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IFPE panel, fall 2014, San Francisco

The Myth of the Expected Loss: How clinicians interact with their mortality in clinical and professional practice

Three clinicians, spanning life stages, professions, and practice areas, discuss personal experiences with clinician mortality, and explore practice realities and recommendations.

Moderator: Karol Marshall, PhD, 2009 Distinguished Educator

Introduction by Karol Marshall, PhD:  The denied and lived experience of mortality in the helping profession

We three, representatives of differing generations of therapists, come together to engage with the IFPE audience of 50 or so psychodynamic therapists, hoping to actively grapple with the complexities of being people who offer trustworthy, reliable care to others while, at the same time, being mortal.

A handful of background truths are in our minds as we open the panel to engage with this subject:

  1. Being mortal provokes profound denial and avoidance. Each day, hour, minute, that we go on living and working adds to our belief that we will always continue to go on living.
  2. In the structure of our consulting room we exercise a nearly magical control over time and space, role and content. Our “professional boundaries” tend to push aside the real fluctuations of time and role.
  3. Discussion of mortality, true engagement with mortality’s insistence on having its way with us, means that the “dialogue” is likely to be disrupted in time, space, topic and role.

I stand before those gathered with an anxious sense that I am awaiting something/someone that has not yet arrived, I begin the panel with two stories from my own professional and personal experience.


I was recently thrown by the report that a lovely colleague that I had worked with closely is demented. “Unbelievable!” I think. He’s younger than I am. It was just yesterday, no, actually a few years ago, that he moved from Seattle to another city … I had understood that he was continuing to see his patients long distance. Personally I had been irritated by having lost contact with him. “He dropped me,” I thought.

Now, comes this news.

“Huh?? No. I can’t believe this rumor.” A few weeks pass before I can bring myself to reach out for more information; finally I email a colleague who responds promptly, “Yes. Dementia. Premature dementia. Yes, that’s probably why he and his wife moved away. There was a farewell party (Why wasn’t I informed, invited, included?). It was sad. He seemed confused.”

“This is absolutely terrible,” I think. “When? How?? How can it be true? What did I not see? What did I misinterpret? How come he got this destiny?? He’s too young.”

“Maybe I can go visit him,” I think …” I want to see him, to observe his state for myself. Is this still the friend I knew?”

I want to thank him, to say something, but what? To think something else, but what?  I want to say farewell to a former companion.

I want it not to be true.

And  I want someone to have handled this situation differently so that somehow I could feel better. This solitary struggle with unwelcome news is unacceptable to me.

Well. He is truly lost. Especially, I think, to me. I had no closure. Frankly, I think someone should have let me in on the news so that I could process somehow. Whose job would that be?

I hate the news, I hate not having known. I hate not knowing. I want something more or else.

Interesting. Let’s look at my second story:

Once I, myself, was the wife of a dying psychoanalyst. I was 35. He was 40. It was shocking. He was dead three weeks after his diagnosis. It was an unbelievably rapid collapse of a vigorous enlivened person. There was a huge amount to be processed with, and for, him. For me. For our kids. Our friends. Our family.

And yes, his patients and colleagues. That professional job had to be taken care of and was taken care of tidily, as far as I knew, by a close colleague and friend who worked in his office. My dying husband sat with her and went through his clinical cases to triage them. As his wife, I had no time or interest. I had to deal with a lot of professional things after his death: selling his office, absorbing his office furniture, his books, his records, his files. I also had to adjust to my new place with his colleagues, people that used to be our friends but could no longer see me for their pain over the loss of him. I not only lost him, I lost our community.

My husband, the dying psychoanalyst, had felt violated when a colleague brought one of his analyzands to the hospital room to say goodbye to him. At that point he only cared about himself and the urgent need to adjust to his new destiny. His, to him, former patient felt like an intruder, an unwelcome reminder of what had formerly been the center of his life, now already lost to him.

Amazingly, some 20 years later a woman showed up in my own professional office. She turned out to be another abandoned patient of my deceased husband. Actually, she came on the 20th anniversary of his death. She had been tracking me for all those years. She had been going to his grave for 20 years. Her old therapist, now long gone, had been the central figure in her life. She had lost him prematurely, but had never really let him go. Now she just wanted to sit with me and speak of her attachment to him and the loss. For her it was like the loss of a father. Idealized, yes, but psychically important, and abruptly taken away.

I felt shock and disorientation as I took in her story. I was going on with my post-loss life, 20 years later but still not ready for this encounter with the real legacy of my past husband’s professional work. My defenses were challenged by the encounter with hers. For me she appeared like an unexpected ghost. For her I suppose I was a specter of her long lost dear therapist.

So now, in this IFPE forum, we propose to go more deeply into the complexities of our professional legacies. We want to increase our ability to comprehend our unique kinds of attachments and losses.

How can it be that I personally, after all these moving experiences and reflections, to this day have a professional will that is only a few paragraphs long? Why have I personally, still not fully taken in most of what is involved here??

We would like to think together today and see what we can allow ourselves to know.

Joe Hovey, MSW: “Science out of pain”

My first therapist died shortly before I graduated from college, in the winter of 2011. I got the news via a text message from a high school friend: “Michelle died last night.”  I felt numb, mostly, walking down the frozen streets of Hyde Park, absorbing the death. I think I shed a tear, at most maybe two. For years after, even to this day, I would explain how Michelle and I had a somewhat detached relationship, characterized by long breaks and brief work. We only met when I was back from college, over vacations. We hadn’t even met for over a year before her death. All that to convince myself that I didn’t really care, that her death didn’t hurt too deeply?  Well, it hurt deeply enough that I didn’t return to therapy for nearly three years.

The summer of 2013, meeting with my future thesis adviser, I truly mourned Michelle for the first time. The context escapes me, but somehow I began discussing those months between my knowing that Michelle was “sick” (was it cancer?) and knowing that Michelle was dead. I wondered with my professor, why hadn’t I reached out to say goodbye?  At the time, I had told myself that Michelle didn’t want to be bothered by me, to feel the need to respond to my condolences, or otherwise care for me. But—a few years removed—I realized what a potential gift my gratitude might have been to my dying therapist. How could I have denied us both that moment of grace?  It was momentarily heart-breaking: a few tears fell. Then, inspired and curious, I got to work.

My resultant thesis research explored how clinicians—more specifically clinical social workers—interact with their mortality in their clinical and professional practice. As a patient, I hadn’t been trained in how to lose a therapist; I never even got word from an official source of my therapist’s death. I wondered how therapists prepare themselves and their clients for the ubiquitous threat—and eventual promise—of their demise. For example, do clinicians draft professional wills, as repeatedly recommended by authors on the subject? And even more generally, in what ways does the therapist’s mortality enter the clinical encounter?  I sought answers to these questions and more through the administration of 83 online surveys and 8 brief phone interviews; participants were all clinical social workers, as white and female as the broader profession, but older, more psychodynamic and more private practice-oriented than average.

In short, study participants painted a picture of ambivalence and good intentions. My survey respondents resoundingly endorsed the importance of professional wills, both ethically and clinically, yet only 14% had completed them (to be fair, an additional third reported “informal arrangements”). Further, clinicians reported a willingness to engage in discussions of clinician mortality, and a belief that their mortality impacts the clinical work, yet only 30 of 83 clinicians report ever having discussed their mortality in the clinical encounter—notably, all identified these mortality talks as beneficial. Phone interviewees echoed these themes, in deeply felt and illuminating conversations, discussing the death of their analysts, their resistance to writing a professional will, their desire to escape the inevitability of death through the vitality felt in their clinical work.

Completing this research was alternately torturous and rewarding, to say the least. Everyday, reading articles about this death or another, put me in near constant contact with my own impermanence. Crossing every street, I wondered what would happen if I were struck by a car. I became hyper-aware of every fallen, thinning hair. I believe a piece of me wanted this project to serve as a sort of panacea for my quarter-life death anxiety. Alas, no easy answers, but a rich stirring of questions, which I continued to engage, and lasting connections arose.

Meeting Karol Marshall and Rachel Newcombe felt like a soothing balm, a staid assertion that my work was worthwhile. Rachel was giving a break-out talk on professional wills at the 2014 annual conference of the Northwest Alliance for Psychoanalytic Study. I at first resisted attending her talk: I was so sick of professional wills, of my mortality, of my endless thesis. Yet I was drawn by the promise of connecting with like-minded folks. I lingered at the door when I saw that I would comprise half the audience: me and one other person (I found out her name was Karol). Entering, though, Rachel assured me that I could leave if I wanted. But that thought escaped me quickly, as the three of us entered a rich, mutually engaging discussion of professional wills, personal disclosure, clinician mortality, and how the hell to do this work. “We should do a panel at IFPE,” Rachel beamed.

Sharing my research at the 2014 IFPE conference, sandwiched in time and space by my wonderful co-presenters, I felt a warm peace. Their ideas informed and bolstered my presentation mightily: at Karol’s suggestion—or was it Rachel’s—audience members read the touching, heartfelt words of my participants. As audience members gave life to those words of pain and ambivalence, I was reminded anew of the compassion I’d felt months before over the phone. I shared also, of course, some of the more quantitative data: how few of us actually produce professional wills, how we report willingness to engage in mortality talks and rarely do.  Also, I discussed the interesting correlations between many mortality attitudes and having at least one older client: a compelling case for the intersubjective power of the clinical encounter.

For all the interesting data—the proof of the profession’s death denial (death ambivalence?)—it was the voices of my study participants, embodied by the IFPE audience, which truly struck a chord personally (and later still the personal stories of the audience members themselves). Death breeds pain and fear, but also makes life worth living, worth seizing. Study participants and IFPE members voiced both the pain and the promise associated with a clear-eyed comprehension of these shared realities of existence: indeed, a well-held mortality can prove a vitally curative force in the clinical work. I’ll end here as I ended at IFPE, with the words of a study participant:

My second analysis she was preparing me for her death. She was really preparing me for it, which was something I needed, because it helped me work through my mother’s death. What she was doing was very, she was saying “I’m going to die. I may even die in the middle of this before you’ve completed your treatment. Or I may get so sick and I can’t work anymore.” And I went back to her, but she said to me, “You have to realize I may get sick, and maybe I can’t work for a couple of weeks, or I may die in the middle of this… But,” she said, “Let’s see how much work we can do in the meantime, I’m still alive here.”

Rachel Newcombe, LICSW: “How to Live”

Karol Marshall has given a dazzling introduction to our panel — her usual lyrical prose was captivating as she recalled her own experiences about colleagues and family members dying. Then Joe Hovey, a recent graduate of Smith School of Social Work, has presented his excellent research about clinician mortality and professional wills and therapists’ resistance to creating them.

I present third and the first thing I announce is that I am getting bored by the all this death talk! I want to talk about living instead of dying. Once again I am reminded that we can’t talk about one without the other.

Yes, through my research, I have learned that fear of death is the most common reason psychotherapists and psychoanalysts resist preparing a professional will. And yes, I do know that all of us need a professional will, a plan, in case we die suddenly or become debilitated or injured without warning. Preparing a will should not be an after-thought or a boring topic. Rather, discussing this topic of death and wills can turn into a lush conversation overflowing with autobiographical clinical material — transferences, resistances, grandiosity, even envy.

If resistance is one of the cornerstones of psychoanalysis, signaling the presence of buried material, and if many of us resist writing our professional wills, then perhaps it is time to openly explore what prevents us from preparing this crucial document: The Professional Will.

(What you just read above is what I prepared for my presentation shortly after Joe, Karol and I met in my office in downtown Seattle. We were getting to know each other as a three-some, becoming a very interesting triangle.)

Okay. It is my turn to talk. I begin with an excerpt from Battlestar Gallactica.

“In our civil war, we’ve seen death. We’ve watched our people die. Gone forever. As terrible as it was beyond the reach of the Resurrection ships, something began to change. We could feel a sense of time, as if each moment held its own significance. We began to realize that for our existence to hold any value, it must end. To live meaningful lives, we must die and not return. The one human flaw that you spend your lifetimes distressing over… Mortality is the one thing… Well, it’s the one thing that makes you whole.”

                                                                                 Number Six, Battlestar Gallactica

This is an unusual choice for me. I do not watch this kind of movie.

A few nights ago my friend Tina took me to a yoga class at Grace Cathedral Church. There were about 300 of us in all shapes and sizes spread out on our yoga mats listening to our yoga instructor guide us through poses. Live music was playing. Silence filled the cathedral, the particular kind of silence that can only come when 300 people practice yoga together in a church with live music playing.

Back to my presentation —- I feel a warmth wash over me as I look around the crowded room seeing faces of people I know, people I love. New faces too.

This is what I say:

August 13th

I just re-wrote my new patient list of telephone numbers on my billing stationary. First name, last initial and telephone number. I have done it like this for the past 16 years. I also have telephone numbers and addresses in my billing book. When I retire my datebook on December 31st each year I stick the old list in the back flap of my billing binder.

Nothing is kept on my computer. If I should die suddenly, someone needs to know where to find this list. Preferably, I should choose a fellow therapist who lives on my island. This fellow therapist should also have a set of my office keys, a list of organizations I belong to, names of journals I subscribe to, all these things that should be properly documented on my professional will. There is only one problem…. I have not completed filling out my professional will.

I tell the audience an experience from the spring:

As some of you may know, Karol and Joe were the two participants in a lecture I gave in Seattle about the resistance to completing a professional will. Well, technically I am not so sure you can call it a lecture when there are only two people present. I quickly abandoned my mode of presenting and the three of us sat in a close circle talking about death, dying, loss and resistance. Out of this conversation, this panel here today was born. Death and birth are inextricably linked.

All eyes are on me and I continue.

October 25th

I am on my vacation in Vancouver, Canada in a penthouse apartment in Yaletown. I look out of the windows and can see the Granville Street Bridge and all the varying sizes of apartment buildings. I need to talk to you about responsibility. About what happens if/when we suddenly die. About keeping immaculate and concise patient notes so our professional executor knows how to contact our patients to give them the news that we are dead.

What if my patient notes are not so immaculate and telephone numbers are missing? Then what? To talk about a professional will means we have to talk about what we are doing in the present.

So is it still denial of death if I am afraid to talk about the present?

I say to my colleagues in the audience: Let’s do this together.

I ask: Who are the two people we want to be in charge of our practice should we die?

Write down their names. And their telephone numbers.

I share what happened to me when I first did this exercise.

I get lost in imagining the people I am choosing picking up the phone and calling my patients. What will they say? I want these two people to be people I can trust, people I like. People who I don’t have to worry whether or not they will say the right thing. But then I start thinking, what if somebody I didn’t pick gets mad or upset with me because I didn’t pick them? Then I remind myself that I won’t be alive to bear witness to their upset-ness.

Then I call on the people present to share their answers.

This is when the magic of an IFPE conference begins! I ask people to read me some of their answers. I ask why they chose these people and not others. My friend raises her hand and shares a story about a friend of hers who has recently died. She raises interesting ideas and as I scan the audience I see that people are buzzing, shaking their heads with recognition. Douglas Maxwell responds to this comment and also brings up an interesting idea — more hands shoot up, people are responding to each other. Ideas are flowing. Laughter fills the room. People are waiting to talk and responding to each other.

At this point I know what I must do. I follow a directive that my dear friend Gersh Molad asked of us during an IFPE conference in Chicago, 2003. I PUT MY PAPER DOWN.

What is happening right here in this room is an IFPE conference becoming an alive space. It’s what happens when we privilege the present moment, when we believe and trust that knowledge is created when people can talk with each other, when original plans are diverted, when the collective conversation is much bigger than the words on the page.

I call on an analyst and he shares a personal story about his life, about what living and dying means for him. This colleague has been on the board of IFPE, his personality and intellect infusing many of us with psychoanalytic possibilities. He is a Jungian at heart but he is also one of the most ecumenical thinkers I know, he engages difference and appreciates ideas.

My friends and colleagues from Seattle share stories about writing professional wills and losing them. People I don’t know raise their hands offering interesting ideas. Someone in the back of the room from New York City, a first time presenter, shares her emergent thinking about professional wills and analyst disclosure.

Another first time IFPE presenter, Kerry Bramhall from Seattle, shares a particular concern about an executor looking through her files. I let her know that I, too, have the exact same fear!

Before we know it our panel comes sliding into the last few minutes.

I never actually get to give the details about how to complete a professional will.

Originally I was going to end my presentation with an excerpt from Amy Koppleman’s novel, I Smile Back:

“If death were woven into the fabric of one’s story early on, it would cease being abstract. Death like birth would be relegated to detail. A date on the calendar, a snapshot complete with color. Death is a manifestation, the complete and total embodiment of fear. A world without fear would be peaceful. There would be no need for sublimation.”

But I do not get a chance to read this because I run out of time.

Instead, I thank everyone for the spontaneous opportunity to think about dying and lying. (This is a slip, I meant to write “living” and now I wonder, what is the lie we tell ourselves in order to live?)  As I write this last sentence my mind circles back to the quote from Battlestar Gallactica: “Mortality is the one thing… Well, it’s the one thing that makes you whole.”

If you would like to contact these presenters, following are their email addresses:

Karol Marshall: mailto:karol@karolmarshall.comai

Joe Hovey: mailto:joehovey@gmail.com

Rachel Newcombe: mailto:newcomberachel@gmail.com

One Response to IFPE panel, fall 2014, San Francisco The Myth of the Expected Loss: How clinicians interact with their mortality in clinical and professional practice

  1. River Malcolm says:

    Thank you. I loved reading this. You three inspire me with your ability to entertain the unknown possibilities of the moment – and actual human others – without letting fear and vulnerability stop you. Reading this is a great warm up for next week in Philadelphia!

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