252: Sadness as Celebration, Part 1

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#252: Sadness as Celebration, Part 1

In today’s podcast, Rhonda and David present Part 1 of their work with a young woman named Rose. Rose is a 38-year-old mother of two boys aged 2 and 5. She works as a Therapist at an outpatient clinic, the East Bay Center for Anxiety Relief, and is a member of our Tuesday training group at Stanford.

Rose sought help because of her profound grief after talking to her mother about her father’s recent visit to his oncologist. Her father has had many severe health problems in the past several years. He’s been a survivor, but suddenly the outlook seems bleak, and Rose feels tremendous sadness and fear, because of her deep love for her father.

In most cases, grief does not need treatment. Clearly, grieving is healthy and even necessary when you lose someone you love. However, it can be helpful to distinguish healthy from unhealthy grief.

From a cognitive therapy perspective, all feelings, including grief over the loss or impending loss of someone you love, result from your thoughts. Healthy grief results from negative thoughts that are not distorted. For example, if a loved one dies, you may think of all the things you loved about that person and the experiences you will no longer be able to share. Your sadness is actually an expression of your love.

Healthy grief, in contrast, results from distorted thoughts. For example, in my book, Feeling Good, I described a young physician who became suicidal when her brother committed suicide because she told herself; “I should have known he was suicidal that day. His death was my fault, and so I, too, deserve to die.”

This thought triggered intense guilt, and it contains many of the familiar cognitive distortions, including Self-Blame, Emotional Reasoning, Should Statements, and Discounting the Positive, and Fortune-Telling, to name just a few. With my help, she was able to challenge and crush her distorted thoughts, and her depression disappeared.

Then she was then able to grieve his tragic death. Paradoxically, the distorted thoughts that triggered the unhealthy grief had actually prevented her from grieving in a healthy way. Today’s podcast is illuminating because Rose is experiencing a combination of healthy and unhealthy grief resulting from a mix of undistorted and distorted thoughts.

The work that Rose did is incredibly inspiring, and sad. Today we will publish the first half of the session, including T = Testing and E = Empathy.

Next week, we will publish the second half of the session, starting with the question, “What do we have to offer our patients once we’ve empathized?” Then you will hear the A = Assessment of Resistance and M = Methods portion of our work with Rose.

T = Testing

Take a look at the Daily Mood Log (LINK) that Rose shared with us at the start of her session. You will see that she had very elevated scores in 8 different categories of negative feelings, suggesting she was in pretty intense distress. We will ask her to rate these feelings again at the end of the session so we can see if she experienced any changes during the session.

I’m a firm believer that all therapists should use testing at every session, and many are now doing this, but lots of therapists still refuse for a variety of reasons. I was going to say “bogus reasons,” but didn’t want to sound harsh or dogmatic!

To me, the refusal of psychotherapists or psychiatrists to measure symptoms at every session is the “unforgiveable sin!” I don’t believe it is possible to do good therapy, much less world class therapy, without Testing, for a wide variety of reasons:

  1. Therapists perceptions of how patients feel, and patients feel about them, are not accurate.
  2. Measuring suicidal urges at the start and end of every session can save lives.
  3. Seeing how effective. or ineffective, you were at every session allows you to fine tune the therapy and abandon strategies and methods that aren’t working in favor of better techniques. This turns your patients into the greatest teachers you’ve ever had—IF you can take the heat!
  4. You will see, for the first time, how your patients rate your Empathy and Helpfulness at every session. At first, this information can be incredibly shocking, but if you process it with your patient at the next session in the spirit of humility, warmth, and curiosity, the experience can be transformative.

E = Empathy

Rose explained that she was feeling acute grief because of her father’s health problems. He had extensive surgery to remove a cancerous kidney in 2014, but the surgeons found additional unusual growths around his spleen.

Her dad has also had open heart surgery, surgery to remove a bone tumor, and many other serious medical problems. She said, “he’s like a cat with nine lives, but we’re concerned that now he’s near the end.”

He experienced GI distress and vomiting in September of 2020, and was hospitalized again in February of 2021, but they found nothing. In March, he was again hospitalized, and the doctor found an aggressive cancerous liposarcoma in his abdomen.

Then they found more tumors in his back, and determined that it was Stage 3. The usual treatment would include radiation and more surgery, but he simply cannot stand any more surgeries, so we began to lose hope.

Rhonda commented that he’s suffered greatly, and the family has suffered as well, since 2014.

Rose and her family finally got to visit him in San Diego on Memorial Day, and this was helpful. She said he’s still really active with the activities he loves, including golf and gardening, and treasures every moment, and loves spending time with his two grandsons.

Rose painfully described the impact of the pandemic, which meant they were only able to visit him twice in the past year. That made it especially nice to connect and see his grandsons during their Memorial Day visit. She said he was especially “present” and cherished those moments.

She said:

He was doing pretty well, and was telling his friends that he’s happy with what he’s accomplished in his life. He grew up in Bosnia, and was poor, with many challenges, so family is really important to him. Catholicism was the center of his culture. The whole family feels more connected now. The grief has brought us closer together.

He’s started chemotherapy, but I’m pessimistic. The doctor said it was only 20% effective, and it’s expensive: $3,000 a month. I do not really know what the timeline is, but it was helpful to visit in person and to see that he can feel joy.

My negative feelings typically run in the range of 50 to 60, but they can be suddenly triggered and spike much higher; for example, when I tell myself that he won’t get to see his grandchildren and share so many important moments with them when they’re growing up.

He tries to comfort us when we ask how he’s doing, and he says, “I’m okay; I’m just a little tired.”

My anxiety fluctuates because so much is not known. I’m not sure how this will affect him. What will the impact be? I’m afraid he’ll get depressed because he may not be able to do the activities he loves, like golf.

I also struggle with feelings of guilt. Should we have visited more? Should we move from the Bay Area to San Diego?

We’ve been having some zoom calls, but they’re hard. The boys compete for his attention on the calls.

Rhonda asked: “You seem to have so much love for him. What has it been like to have him for a dad?”

Rose answered:

I have two brothers, and I’m the only daughter, so there’s always been a special connection between my dad and me, and his values of hard work and family. Soccer has been really important, and he was so proud when Croatia won the world cup.

Connection has always been so important. I wanted to go to South America when I was in my 20’s, because I wanted to learn more Spanish and seek adventure. Everyone said it could be dangerous, so don’t go alone. So my dad went with me, and we had our own wonderful adventures. When I think about that, it makes the feelings of loss all the more painful, because we’re losing that connection.

Rhonda and I asked for a grade on empathy. She said: “The session feels warm and I feel connected with both of you. A+”

End of Part 1

Next week, you can hear the inspiring and moving conclusion of today's session.

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