The Secret of Grief

Jo Frasca

Harley was Saydee’s best friend. He belonged to Saydee’s original adoptive family, the Kindly Neighbours across the road. Saydee lived in her sad, emotionally impoverished, violent home and would frequently sit at the gate awaiting the return of her owners and while doing so, watch the comings and goings of her happy, cheerful neighbours. All too often Saydee’s owners would not return home; she still dislikes being left alone. Barking incessantly on these occasions she would rouse the Kindly Neighbours from their bed. They would traipse across the road and scoop Saydee up, bringing her into their home where she would snuggle, with Harley, into their warmth and safety. It was Harley she loved most.

Saydee had been living with me for a short time when Harley became unwell and died suddenly. Saydee had been unable to say goodbye to her best friend and as result, for the longest time after Harley’s death, Saydee would dash into his home and run to every corner looking for him in all his favourite places. I reflected on her losses, both now and of that of her previous family. If I had a traumatised, lost, little dog before, now after Harley’s death, it was far worse. Sadly, Saydee’s warm, loving demeanour began to deteriorate before my eyes. Nothing I could do comforted her. She would move away from me when I tried to hold or hug her. She would stare at me from wherever she was, in a disarming manner. At times I felt she thought I had gotten rid of him or wondered why I wasn’t bringing him back.

Her shift, noticeable by her posture, her lack of interaction and slower gait, from a buoyant dog to being distracted and lethargic, was palpable. Even her face had a forlorn look as she dragged her head lower. This malaise became so acute that patients began noticing. They began commenting that she appeared to be different. Whereas usually she was out of her basket well before they had even entered the room, tail wagging, now she would remain where she was, in her basket, and look up, as if to acknowledge them, then lie down to sleep. My interpretation was that it was as if she was trying to sleep off the feelings, as we humans are apt to do, a classic symptom of depressive grief.

The secret of grief 157

Around this time, I had been working for about three years, a relatively short time, with a challenging patient, a bright, funny, wiry Irishman. C had explained that he had sought psychotherapy following the transformation he witnessed in his best friend, whom he had met on a rock precipice three decades earlier in Germany. During our initial appointment, he explained that he had recently travelled to Europe to visit his old friend. He told me he had been anxious about the visit because of his friend’s constant dark energy. Though he cared deeply about his friend, typically he had found it difficult to spend any length of time with him because, as he frequently said, ‘he’s so fucking miserable all the time’, an experience so anxiety provoking for C that he had contemplated not doing the trip. However, to his shock and pleasure, on this visit, his friend was a delight. His friend opened up in a rare declaration, divulging his own story and his psychotherapy journey. They spoke into the early hours of the morning, his friend sharing some of the darkest things he had learned about himself on his psychotherapy expedition of his life and his family of origin. C described how moving it was to hear how the human body and psyche could mask such detailed important information, then reveal it behaviourally. Though not as overtly dark as his friend, C knew that he too had suffered depression as long as he could recall and had used ‘a lot of alcohol and humour’ to manage it. They decided that he should embark on a similar journey.

C had waltzed in with the above story and giving me the brief, asked how long ‘it’ would take. Our three years together were peppered with this theme: ‘how long, how long, how long’, like a small child on a long car trip, ambivalence reflected in his desire to both stay in psychotherapy and leave. He fluctuated incessantly and almost every session included a reference to ‘how long this is taking’.

C appeared never to attach to Saydee. They ignored each other, he not acknowledging her in the room and she not doing her usually patient-specific greeting to acknowledge the entry. This was until one day, when he sailed into the room in his ever-sunny mood and said, ‘Eh, what’s wrong with yer dog?’ I hedged and paused. I looked at him quietly, incredulously, wondering how he knew she was different. C was apt to divert our dialogue in sessions, was tangential, avoidant and dismissive. He was also quite sceptical about ‘feelings’ and 1 wondered about the wisdom of explaining Saydee’s malaise. On the other hand, I did not want to collude with his avoidant temperament so asked, ‘What are you noticing about her?’ He did an interesting thing, something 1 had not witnessed him do before. He looked at her, stared actually, for the longest time, not speaking. 1 sensed for a time he was no longer aware of his surroundings. Eventually, he looked up from Saydee, apprehension darkening his face. It took on a strange appearance; eyes not blinking, narrowing, his lips white and trembling, his face an ashen shade and his head tilted in a strange position as if stuck in a pose between staring at Saydee and needing to look at me. It was eerie. I had not seen or experienced this level of disquiet from him before. He was usually the epitome of chatty banter and convivial disposition, masking his depression.

Slowly, quietly, with almost-concern, a change from his usual cavalier manner, he said, ‘She seems sad, I mean really, really sad’. I felt shocked at his insight. I asked, equally as quietly, so as not to interrupt his process, ‘Anything else?’ Falteringly he said, ‘Like she has lost something, or someone, she loves very much’. We were both quiet again, his gaze going back to Saydee. Unexpectedly, she began to engage with his stare, almost as if they were having a conversation with each other. Suddenly he looked back at me. I was surprised to see tears. I said nothing. I did not want to disrupt his connection with Saydee. She was clearly evoking some long-lost memory for him. I felt any word uttered from my lips right now, at this moment, would interfere with his internal process and recall and might catapult him back to his defence mechanism and avoidance, and I would have the chatty, bolshy Irishman back in the room.

It appeared he could no longer tolerate what he was experiencing. Neither could he look at me. He was staring down at a place somewhere between his feet, arms resting on his thighs. Saydee settled back into her basket, perhaps assessing the loss of his attention, and not appearing to particularly care. I waited, saying nothing. It was quiet. 1 then noted a wet stain on his knee, dark against the fabric of his jeans. Tear drops. His hunched shoulders begin to tremble. Finally, a sound escaped from his quivering lips. He answered my question, ‘Death’. He was then wracked with sobs, for the longest time, all the while hiding his face in his hands. Tears, snot and drool escaped through his fingers. Suddenly he screamed, ‘Why did she have to die? Why? Why? Why? I didn’t mean it’. I was momentarily startled, though not as much as Saydee. I can usually intervene with a hand movement to stop her from approaching a patient. The hand movement did not work on that day. She sprung from her bed into his lap in what appeared to be one single bound. Briefly, I had an opportunity to experience remorse, for allowing her to get so close to him during what appeared to be a catharsis of archaic, painful and probably traumatic memories. But he grabbed her, almost roughly, and held her close, sobbing into her fur. Now they were both covered in tears, snot and drool, neither appearing to care. He was repeating, ‘Yes, yes, yes, you know, you know, I know you know’. Rocking back and forth, Saydee allowing him to hold her in a way she would never have tolerated from me. I waited.

Eventually, his torrent subsided, his grip on Saydee loosened. She nestled close to him, appearing to know she needed to be near, both seeming to want to be near each other. This was familiar territory for her, though not for him. He told of the tragic loss of his mother when he was young. He told a story of the death of a girlfriend at age sixteen. He said he had told no one, shared nothing about how responsible he felt for both deaths. His mother crashed the car; he was the four-year-old passenger. His girlfriend drowned

The secret of grief 159 after he had begged her not to go into the raging, swirling eddy. He asked about Saydee. I told him the abridged version of Harley’s recent death. He picked her up again from the couch near him, holding her close, saying, ‘Aye, it hurts doesn’t it, girl?’

Finally, he stops complaining about how long it is taking. Finally, he understands why it takes so long. He also begins to understand why the drugs, incarceration, rehabilitation units, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and cognitive behaviour therapy as treatments, and his use of alcohol, have not worked to cure him of‘this depression’. It had been grief all along. Allowing him now to delve into his history enabled him to become attached to the work, to the psychotherapist and to the dog, his fear of our deaths and his losses all floridly filling the room. He and Saydee become pals. 1 don’t call her off when he goes into catharsis. He has contracted with me to let her up near him at those times. He says it is a comfort to have her tap at him and for some reason, it helps him get more deeply in touch with his grief. Finally, our work has begun.

As the patient’s own grief was not forthcoming in the early stages of our work pre-Saydee’s intervention, I was left to hypothesis why he had not processed that grief around the death of his mother. He knew his father had been so grief-stricken as to not work for years; his father’s grief took precedence over the four-year old’s grieving process. In confirmation of this, he recalled conversations with a paternal aunt saying, ‘yes your father nearly died of grief after your mother was killed; we knew you were too young to fully understand so we were all focused on his recovery’. The telling of this part of his story evoked the patient’s rage at the neglect of his right to grieve his dead mother and spoke to Peskin’s (2019) thinking that ‘... the highly ranked mourners may appropriate another’s grief by claiming a stronger sense of entitlement’ and that ‘the self is injured when one’s right to grieve is withheld, overlooked or otherwise curtailed by others’ (p. 477). My hope was that in Saydee liberating his grief he might find that, ‘grief is most[ly] our own when we protest it’s being taken from us’ (ibid). 1 hoped this might be his first step toward recovery in our now overt work on his mother’s death where he began protesting and raging about not being allowed to grieve in preference to his father.

Freud (1917, ibid) in Mourning and Melancholia, contends that in deferring grief, one is in fact ‘resisting to give up the lost object’ perhaps explaining the two levels in which this patient resisted his grief: one where he was not assisted in expressing his grief and the second, where it was in fact deferred to the others’ ‘more important’ grieving process.

In ascertaining Saydee’s part in his release of long-standing grief, I refer to Peskin’s insight about how difficult, if not impossible, it is for people to process grief without the witnessing or recognition of other or community. He explains further that grief can be stymied when there is a threat, as was the case with this patient’s expressed fear that his father might also die, a fear that would keep him quiet and compliant. In those protracted periods where the person does not grieve, we might understand that this patient wasridiculed or refused the right to grieve, an embargo which can precipitate emotional sustainability, hence creating a protective shell that fends off any opportunity for exposure of feelings (Bowlby, 1980). The more the child is denied their grief, the more anxiety and distress escalate and become habitual (ibid). The extent to which C deflects is tangential, adds humour and drinks excessively is perhaps an indication of how he managed significant levels of anxiety and distress. If the negation of feelings continues on the part of both the family and the child, the child is then unlikely to see the grief as significant or even to acknowledge its existence (ibid). It was when his grief was at this level that this patient found his way into psychotherapy.

Bowlby’s (ibid) formula for healthy development in a child who experiences the early death of a parent includes the following ingredients: the hope that, prior to the death of the parent, the child had a securely attached relationship; that following the death, the surviving parent and extended family give timely and truthful information to the child; that the child is permitted questions, not only about that parent’s death but about death generally; the child is included in the surviving parent’s own grief process; and that the surviving parent creates an environment of security, reassurance and solace for the grieving child. As if to illustrate Bowlby’s formula, C would repeatedly lament, ‘Why didn’t they talk to me about her death, or let me talk about it?’ He believed that, had he been able to talk and ask questions about what happened to his mother, he may not have felt responsible and guilty for her death.

C had always felt responsible for his mother’s death, simply by virtue of the fact that he happened to be in the car at the time. It was years before he could hear his own words, ‘Her death had nothing to do with me’.

Bromberg (2011) tells us that is it somewhat normal for the brain, in dealing with ‘disjunctive truths’ (pp. 98-101), to activate dissociation. He also contends that the fear of emotional dysregulation can cause this level of dissociation (Bromberg, 2008). When the situation is extremely traumatic, such as the death of a parent, the brain will protect us from the ‘emotionally threatening situation’ (ibid). It is when this ‘unbearable’ level of dissociation is present that there can be developmental damage affecting human to human connection.

I was left with many questions about how this patient was able to use Saydee as a portal to his traumatic grief. Was there a void in the very transference and countertransference that was required to liberate the trauma (Maroda, 1998)? Was it rather Saydee’s loss of Harley that triggered C’s repressed grief, a process I was unable to engage within my griefless self-state? Did Saydee’s empathic eye-locking gaze allow him the experience of finally being seen and felt in a way that undermined his defences against his long-held grief? Did Saydee take over the position of the psychotherapist in appearing responsive and attuned?

Bromberg (in Mitchell and Aron, 1999) contends that it is incumbent on the psychotherapist not only to allow, and even encourage, the enactment to occur, but also to participate in it. I believe that C and 1 were engaged in an enactment, whereby I was perhaps experienced by C as not unlike his father and

The secret of grief 161 aunt, who, by failing to countenance his grief, ensured its continued disavowal. Saydee, conversely, rather than complicit with the patient in this disavowal, somehow created a relational milieu conducive to a shared or twinship experience. Not only did Saydee’s gifts to C of her responsive, empathic attunement and an experience of shared subjectivities grant him an alternative to his more familiar experience - that of his subjectivity having been colonised by his father (and possibly, by extension, me) - but also as the third in the room, Saydee interrupted the enactment in which C and I were inadvertently engaged. These two offerings by Saydee provided to C the opportunity to repeal, or even liberate, his defences and generate a process of developmental repair.

Despite the temptation, when I find myself in unknown territory, to bolster my doubt with interpretations or interventions informed by theories of the unconscious (Bromberg, ibid), I allowed our work to transition into an alternative mode, and onto the foreign landscape upon which we, in the room, all found ourselves thereby, ironically, allowing the therapeutic work to unfold between Saydee and C.

With Bowlby’s steps for healthy development following the death of a parent in mind, I would like to think that Saydee had at some level given him the empathy and permission that no-one else (including this psychotherapist) had and thereby finally allowed him to express grief.

In conclusion, I suggest that depression, trauma, dissociation, enactment and grief are not always organised in such a manner to which the psychotherapist can apply a prescription for the integration. Saydee’s interaction with the patient demonstrated unmistakeably that when grief meets grief or the patient feels seen in a necessary manner, or if the psychotherapist is attuned, it can often be the most unexpected event or environment in the room that will liberate the patient’s story.


1 This chapter has been adapted from Delving Deeper: Understanding Diverse Approaches While Exploring Psychotherapy by Jo Frasca, self-published in 2016.


Bowlby, J. (1980) Attachment and loss volume 3: Loss sadness and depression. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis.

Bromberg, P. (2008) Shrinking the tsunami: Affect regulation, dissociation and the shadow of the flood. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 44(3), pp. 329-350.

Bromberg, P. (2011) The shadow of the tsunami: And the growth of the relational mind. New York and Oxon: Routledge.

Maroda, K. (1998) Seduction, surrender, and transformation: Emotional engagement in the analytic process. Mahwah, NJ: The Analytic Press.

Mitchell, S.A., and Aron, L. (1999) Relational psychoanalysis: The emergence of a tradition. New York and London: Routledge.

Peskin, H. (2019) Who has the right to mourn?: Relational deference and the ranking of grief. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 29(4), pp. 477-492.

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