Death’s Gift. Healing Grief Article

With a breast cancer prognosis of one month to live, Mrs. Samuel and her family came for counseling upon the recommendation of her doctor. No one in her family talked about her dying, and that was fine with her. I wanted to help them create emotional intimacy before she died and thereby make her passage easier. I was very touched by the opportunity to work with this family. I have other clients whose family members have died, and my clients are still grieving because they didn’t fully express their love before it was too late.

Mrs. Samuel hobbled into my office with intense pain.  The pills weren’t helping much anymore.  Her right arm was swollen to five times the size of her left arm.  Mr. Samuels eased his wife into the most comfortable chair in my office. Their children entered after them:  a 6 year old boy, a 10 year old boy and a 19 year old daughter.  This was the second marriage for both Mr. and Mrs. Samuels, and the daughter was from the previous marriage.  Mrs. Samuels was in her mid-forties.

I sent the children out to play in the yard for a 1/2 hour while I talked to the parents.  I talked about Mrs. Samuel’s breast cancer, and that we didn’t know how much time she had left. It could be tomorrow or weeks from now.  I talked about how rich our lives can be if we are always prepared for our death, or the death of our loved ones. It helps us to be fully present with each other and ourselves.

I asked them how they wanted to handle the conversation with the children.  Mr. Samuels talked for several minutes about the years of conflicts in their family. There had been only a few caring honest conversations in their marriage. For example, before Mr. Samuels had left for work this morning, he asked the children and his wife to start getting ready at 9:30 so they could be on time for this appointment at 1:00 p.m. The kids played instead of getting ready. When he got home from work, his wife asked him to iron the children’s clothes, which should have already been done.  He spoke of other conflicts.  I saw the pattern of their life. They talked superficially, having no idea how to express their real emotions to each other.

I thought to myself, “How can I move this conversation to a more meaningful level? If I don’t, this whole session is going to stay on the surface.” I wondered what they would do with my intervention.

“Let me interrupt you,” I said. “The children will be back soon. Here’s what I suggest. If you are willing, let’s invite everyone to talk about their feelings about Mrs. Samuel’s cancer.  Let’s talk about what you believe happens after a person dies.  Let’s give an opportunity for everyone to say what needs to be said so the unfinished business can be finished.

“What do you want them to know before you die, Mrs. Samuels?  Don’t wait. Really use this opportunity.  We don’t have any guarantees how long you will be here.”  They both agreed to address the deeper issues.

I called the children into our session, and I told them the same thing.  I encouraged them to share from their heart as though they might never have another chance.  Indeed, they might not.

Mr. Samuels encouraged them to open up and say things even if they were difficult.  He turned to his wife, caring yet distant, “I know sometimes you are angry with me. Sometimes it’s hard to be in our family. I love you. I want you to say what’s on your mind.”

She replied directly, “I’m scared to leave the children because you yell at them. Sometimes you’re so controlling. You don’t listen. I’ve been so angry with you for the way you treat us.”

He listened. He really wanted to know.

I could intuitively see the whole pattern of their marriage. Mr. Samuels provided for them. He had done his role well, and he was proud of his job as the head of the household. He ruled his family the best way he knew how. He was strong. He gave orders. He was from the generation of men who didn’t show tender feelings. He didn’t cry.

Mrs. Samuels was heavily armored also. She had given up on her marriage and on life.  She had become subservient to him while she built alliances with her children and excluded him. That’s the only way she knew to protect the children and her.  Her life was about warding off the threats, not about living life proactively.

She said to her husband, “I figure if I die, you might finally realize you need to change.”  Yet, she was in agony about leaving her children in the care of her husband. Their younger son was withdrawing and had acted out in school for the last several weeks. Mrs. Samuels asked her husband to be more sensitive to the children’s feelings and needs.

He softened and said he really wanted to love his family. He asked the children to express their feelings to him and to their mother. He opened. It was then that I knew there was a good possibility that healing would come to this family. Mr. Samuels was leading in a new way.  He opened his heart, and he listened.

The 19-year-old daughter spoke first.  With tears streaming down her face, gazing into her mother’s eyes, she said, “I love you, Mommy. I’ll miss you so much!”

Mrs. Samuels cried, too.  She finally let down her guard and opened. She said, “I love you so much. I’m so sorry you never got to be a child. You were always taking care of the boys while I worked. That wasn’t fair to you.”

The daughter walked over to her mother. They hugged and held each other.  The daughter continued, “You were only doing the best you could at the time, and I don’t blame you for anything. I just love you!”  They cried more intensely, holding each other.  Mrs. Samuels said in relief, “Oh thank God! I just needed to know you forgive me.”  The daughter replied, “I do, Mom. I love you.”  They both sighed.

Then the daughter turned to her stepfather, and hugged him. “I love you, too Daddy,” she said.

He declared to her, “I will always love you as my daughter. I will always be here for you. You can count on me.”  They both cried, and their hearts opened more.

The two boys sat on the floor in front of their parents.  No tears. No words.  Motionless.  I looked inside their hearts and saw how armored they had become.

I addressed them. “You know it’s hard to be a male in our culture. You’re supposed to be strong and tough, and tears are seen to be a sign of weakness. You, Mr. Samuels, can make a big difference in their lives. You can give them permission to cry and to feel vulnerable emotions.”

Much to my surprise, Mr. Samuels immediately said, “Boys, you’ve never seen me cry before, but I’m crying now, and these tears help us heal. They help us get these feelings out, and they’re good. Is there anything you want to tell your Mama or me?”

I intuitively sensed the older one wasn’t the kind of person who had many words for feelings. He just felt them in his body. I had to help him find a way to express them through his body. The youngest boy was too suppressed to say anything, but I knew he would open up as the rest of the family did.

I explained to them, “Your son expresses emotions kinesthetically. That means he expresses his emotions through his body, not so much with words. If you will hug him and hold him, he will probably let his barriers down, and let the love flow in and out of him.”

Then I saw this picture in my mind: They were all on a big bed, holding each other. It was an idea I thought they might be uncomfortable with and I hesitated to say it, but I knew it would work for them if they would do it. I decided to take the risk, and told them about the picture in my mind.

To my delight, they all lit up.  Mrs. Samuels exclaimed with joy, “Yes, just like we used to do years ago when you all were young.  We all huddled on the king size bed. We even got the three other step children and eight of us cuddled on the bed. Remember how we all loved that!”  Even Mr. Samuels loved the idea of doing it again.

I was amazed!  Their energy had become so loving and open.

After a while of sharing the love, we all embraced. I thanked them all for their willingness to open up, and I sent them on their way. In 2 hours, their whole life pattern changed!

Death (and losses of all kinds) brings us this opportunity:  To melt our numbness and armoring and open our hearts, even when we feel intense uncomfortable emotion.  When we remain open in the presence of grief, we give and receive the most powerful, intimate love.

Let us not waste time and wait until the end. Let us prepare for our death and the death of our loved ones every day by fully expressing our love, and finishing our unfinished business. Then we are always present:  always prepared for good-bye, and always prepared for hello.

* Names were changed to protect confidentiality.

Now It’s Your Turn: What’s one thing you can do today to help your family melt their armoring and share from the heart? Lead by example by sharing your vulnerable emotions.

Register for our seminar: “Metamorphosis, A Class on Loss, Change, and Growth.”  Send a message on the contact page.  Contact Benita to request private counseling or life coaching.

Author: Benita A. Esposito, MA is a Licensed Professional Counselor specializing in (1) relationships, (2) mind-body-spirit healing, and (3) success skills. She also helps people with depression, anxiety, grief, post-traumatic stress (PTSD) and bipolar disorders. Combing a master’s degree in psychology with her intuitive ability to understand people, Benita helps people create flourishing personal and professional lives rooted in the Authentic Self.  Benita maintains private practice psychotherapy offices in Blairsville and Atlanta, Georgia. Life coaching clients receive services worldwide via the phone and skype. Most insurance accepted for psychotherapy. For more details visit

“Be the change you wish to see.” ~ Ghandi