“I just want to know what happened. I want to know what we did that was so wrong.” I have heard these words over and over again. I am a social worker and I have a private practice and I often work with people who have experienced grief and loss. These particular clients, a really lovely Puerto Rican couple who have lived in New Jersey for the past thirty years or so, are tortured by the relationship between them and their eldest son. Their eldest son, Roberto, Bert for short, is one of three children in their family. He is 37 years old, his younger sister is 34 and their baby brother is 30. According to my clients, Rick and Natalie, they had at one time been very close with all three of their children, but over the past five years the relationship with Bert has gotten more and more distant, until, late last year, there was a misunderstanding that made Bert really angry. Natalie and Rick attempted to talk it through with him, but Bert declined saying that, as far as he was concerned, the relationship between them had been a “shit show” for years. Natalie was stunned to hear this and she has been replaying this phrase over and over ever since.
Bert and his wife, Lois, have been married almost a decade now. They have two small children, a boy, Ricardo, 7 years old and a daughter, Julia, almost five years old. According to Rick, after Bert and Lois were married, Lois’ family became the primary family, although Bert did still make time to see his parents. Once they had children, however, Bert and Lois were so busy, so overwhelmed, that they had time for themselves only and, when they had any spare time, they went to Lois’ family. Rick said they made every effort to see Bert and Lois and the kids, but Bert always said the same thing, “I am so busy at work and if I had any spare time I would spend it with my wife, not my parents.” It was a slap in the face every time Bert said it to Rick; but it didn’t stop Rick from inviting Bert, Bert and Lois, Bert and his family to visit. Lois, who works as a Yoga teacher and runs a meditation and wellness studio, remains cool and aloof, offering nothing in the relationship. Natalie hypothesizes that, if asked, Lois would say that it is Bert’s family and “talk stupid talk like boundary issues, whatever that means when it is your son!”
“Why should Lois care?” Natalie asks through her tears, “She HAS her family, they go to her family, she’s lost nothing. We’ve lost our son, our grandchildren!”
I work with a lot of people who have experienced losses and who are grieving their loss. I have a particular interest in what I call ambivalent loss, which is a loss that is discounted by society and often not widely recognized as loss. For instance, I have had no small number of pet owners who have said that their pet was like a child to them and that they cannot get over the loss. Now, you would never say that to a parent who has lost a child, but that is sometimes the experience for people who have lost a pet. There are other examples as well. For instance, I know a man who is a personal trainer and owns his own gym facility. He was in an accident and has limited ability to raise one of his arms over his head; yet, people look at him, his enviable body, his good looks, his obvious business success and encourage him to count his blessings. For him, that restriction is a huge loss and he lives with it every day. Ambivalent losses are most identifiable whenever people are encouraged to look at the bright side, eg: you can always get another dog, thank goodness things weren’t worse, at least you walked away alive, you have your health, and other phrases that are experienced as invalidating and insensitive.
For Rick and Natalie, I confess, I have nothing. Really nothing. They have been, for all intents and purposes, ghosted by their son. They have been written out of his life, allowed in only when absolutely necessary and, as Rick and Natalie point out, when it would be odd for them to not be in attendance or when the explanation of why they are not included would be too difficult. They get invited to anything involving the children where Lois’ parents would be there and it would be odd for Rick and Natalie to not be in attendance: the children’s birthday parties, Julia’s dance recitals, Riccardo’s violin concerts. Bert and his family will attend two family get-togethers per year: Thanksgiving and Christmas. Other than that, Rick and Natalie have been are largely erased from their son’s life, “put out like the trash,” as Natalie likes to say.
I have asked them to tell me if they can imagine what might have happened. They have no idea what happened to have gotten them so marginalized when Bert’s children were born and for all of those years between then and the most recent upset, but they do have a sense of what happened most recently that made Bert so angry. Apparently, Rick has a brother who is fairly disabled and has been for a number of years. Rick and his sister are their brother’s caregivers, although the brother does live in a nursing home, so they are not responsible for the day to day daily living needs. This past holiday season, Rick’s brother suffered a series of mini strokes which required Rick and his sister to be more involved in some hands-on details of the brother’s life. Also, during this time, Natalie’s and her family were moving their mother from her house where they had all grown up, to a senior living facility, so Natalie was busy flying back and forth to Texas, where her mother and her siblings all live. Bert and Lois open their house for Bert’s family to celebrate Christmas a few days before the holiday, but the understanding is that they provide the house, not the food. Rick and Natalie had been invited to the pot luck Christmas gathering that Bert and Lois were hosting and, exhausted from the care of both family members, they did not bring a dish to share. According to Natalie, she and Rick had hosted all family gatherings for all of the children for years and years and only recently are the children now beginning to host holidays. She felt that it would not be a big deal if they didn’t bring a dish to share. They had not RSVP’d that they would be bringing something, so they figured that Bert and Lois understood that they would arrive empty handed. Bert was furious that they arrived empty handed and pulled his mother into a quiet place to let her know just how mad he was. Natalie was shocked. She was shocked that their arriving empty handed was that big an issue, she was shocked at the lack of compassion that their son had for the situation that had them arrive empty handed, and shocked that Bert would pull her aside in the middle of a get together to reprimand her as though she were one of his workplace subordinates.
Natalie has been crying about this ever since. Wondering if there were financial issues in Bert’s family, I asked if the event was a pot luck to relieve the pressure of Bert’s family having to shoulder all the expenses. Rick said that it was a pot luck because all of the family are foodies and they all love to cook. “Besides”, he went on, “my son has enough money to buy Miami. The problem is that his heart is two sizes too small! He had depended on people bringing food and what happened was that he had his family, my daughter and her family of five, and us all there with no appetizers and no main course. He was embarrassed. He had a house full of people and no food. My other son, who was bringing a rice and chicken dish, hadn’t arrived, so we were all standing around looking at each other.”
“We would never entertain that way,” Natalie piped in, “We taught him better than that! Even if we were having a pot luck, we would be sure to put out appetizers or something to hold people over before the main course arrived. We always have more food than we need. We are Puerto Rican. That’s how we are. We make too much food and we feed people. Rick is right. My son’s heart is two sizes too small. How dare he host and provide nothing but his house!”
I am at a loss for what to offer these kind people. I can sit with them and witness their pain, but I have no explanation that will soothe their hurt. According to Rick, their son has declined to talk about any of this, claiming “it isn’t worth it.” When I ask what the other children have to say on the topic, Natalie says that, when she told her daughter about it, that her daughter just laughed and said, “Mom, join the crowd. He wrote the rest of us off years ago. You are just the last ones to go. It sucks. Get over it.” And, even though I do not have much to offer, I do understand the dynamic. I really do. My mother used to say “A son is a son ‘til he takes a wife; a daughter is a daughter all of your life.” I don’t tell Rick and Natalie this little tid-bit, but instead we start to build the next stage of their family from scratch. Starting with the children they do see, and the grandchildren they adore, they begin to plan for a cookout to celebrate the fourth of July.
“It won’t be the same…” Natalie says, kind of like the last nod to the old as we create the new.
“It won’t,” I reply.
“It never will.”
“Never is a long time. Maybe just plan this one event.”
Turning to Rick, Natalie askes, “Papi, you think Rosalie’s children are old enough to help make the mofongo? Maybe they can come early and we can do that with them. Just us, without the parents.”
“Ah!” Rick exclaims putting his hand on his forehead. “Again with the mofongo! You know your mother’s recipe is not the best. They can come only if we use my mother’s recipe!!!”
“Your mother’s recipe is too heavy!!! I’ll invite them. It will be fun.”
Something has shifted for them. Natalie smiles at me, not like the grief is over, not like this won’t always be sad, but that the sadness can exist alongside of the next chapter.