Need some balm for the soul

Dad died, lover left me, unemployed, things are tough, could use a lift.

Published April 14, 2009 10:30AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

In the last few months I have read a great deal of your articles, and they have often brought a feeling of joy, and pleasure from your expressionist compassion. I think perhaps I am writing to you to feel that it is valid to write down my own pains, and that by acknowledging them I am not being weak, or at least not purely so. Like so many of us, I have recently been hurt in love, and I am trying to grapple with the sadness, the betrayal, and the need to be gentle and let go.

My darling man and I moved to London two years ago, after fighting desperately for him to be able to stay in my home country, Australia. When this application failed, we needed to quickly find a solution, to deternine if love was indeed worth fighting for. And we both believed that, yes, it was. My -- former partner, I should say now -- is of Indian origin, and his parents have never approved of me, my whiteness, and the total lack of family wealth. And of course, this hurt, too: to never be part of family gatherings with them, when my family so lovingly and generously embraced us.

So we have adventured together and started a new and a challenging life on the other side of the globe, and we were happy, if struggling. Last year, as our concern over being able to renew visas in the U.K. grew, my lovely, loving man finally pursued the family business (in finance). And, what do you know? Leaving a filmmaking career in which he was only making wedding videos was not all a bad thing. Put on a suit and, Hey, presto! This quiet and reserved man suddenly gets service at bars and restaraunts, and he is actually good at this (just as he was as a filmmaker, but the money and security were not there). There is a new recognition, a new status, a new confidence in his life. He gets a work permit, I rush back to Australia to make this into a spousal visa. Five years of bravery and it feels that the story is going into a new act, perhaps a third one, where the lovers, after adversity, are able to marry, live life's normal struggles, be happy.

Whilst I am in my home country, my darling, funny, gentle father is diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer, and in two months, he has died.

I feel blessed that I can be there all that time, to bear witness, to love and hear his last words, which in true fatherly form, are a joke, to make his children, his foster children, the nurses, smile. My mother, on the other hand, is a difficult woman, full of negativity and poison. I remember why I was so desperate to leave my hometown, so desperate to begin a life where it was possible to breathe, be brave, have laughter. So the funeral is difficult and sad. My siblings fly in as and when they can, but the distances are great (many thousands of kilometres for the one who lives nearest my parents, and many more for the other two of us; we don't share time zones in my family, though the love is strong).

And I miss my love who cannot be there. The day my father dies, my visa arrives. Shortly after the funeral, I fly back to my dear man, my little world, the wonderful variety of people that London has to offer. And of course, job hunting. What had been simple before is significantly slower and harder in a recession. It is stressful, but there is love.

Then I begin to realize that my partner is seeing no one but work colleagues, has apparently been hopelessly lonely while I was away, and is stressed with his new study (we both have master's degrees in media-related areas, and now he is studying for his new life in finance). A month and a half after my return, still unemployed, and only now being able to begin to grieve for my father, my beloved looks broken when I say he does not seem to have time for me right now. And yes, I was jealous of the amount of time he was spending out with colleagues (he had been out three nights that week on work-related binges or client meals, and was not intending to go out except for those things for an additional month due to exams -- so not exactly any time for dating me). His face looked as if I had broken his heart.

I went out to see friends and when I came back, my dear man was not to be seen; instead an angry, snarling, black dog seemed to have taken his place. For a week he snarled at me. Then he broke up with me, saying that he had a five-year plan in which hopes of children were impossible, that I would grow to resent more than love him, that his values were changing because of his work and he felt I could not cope with less of his time. He is sincere that for him, these are impassable mountains. He speaks to no one of this. He seems to believe it is neccessary to completely recant his former life and aspirations, and that life can be led inflexibly. So I secretly call his friends, to make sure they are there for him, and so he can see his world is larger than he has allowed it to be. He is, I know, a little broken, and I think, entering a difficult depression, but he has ousted me -- as I am grieving for my father, brokenhearted for him, jobless in a difficult recession, and, I think, having just miscarried.

I am brave and I am strong but I struggle to see a way to make a new life, to say goodbye and to do the things I need to do. I need a little balm for my soul. This is the most I have managed to write, in any kind of logical sequence, for some time. Not so good for the job prospects. And I miss and worry for him, and feel betrayed that he would leave me so vulnerable. I feel naked and without a haven or harbor. I suppose I am looking for a way to step forward.

Phew, this was long and meandering and I apologize.

Looking for a Little Bravery

Dear Looking,

You do need a little balm for the soul. So I suggest you make a program for yourself in which you acquire such balm regularly. I do not know what balms work for you, but you can probably make a list.

Here is what a list might look like. Yours might be different, of course, because everyone's balms are different.

List of Balms

  • Massage once a week
  • Afternoon spent quietly reading
  • Session with sympathetic therapist
  • Telephone conversation with favorite relative
  • New exercise class
  • Day at a spa
  • Eat favorite Thai soup
  • Afternoon in hot tub and/or sauna
  • New shoes, new dress, new hat, new lingerie
  • Lunch with amusing, upbeat friends
  • Weekend trip to seaside bed-and-breakfast
  • Church service in favorite church
  • Visit to favorite spot with a view that takes some walking to get to.

As I do not tire of saying, we cannot ignore something like this, nor can we drop everything and grieve 24 hours a day. So we must build into our lives activities that help us get through it day by day.

We accept that this thing is with us for a while and that it will emerge from time to time over the coming months and years. If we are not prepared, if we think that we are completely over it, then it will make itself known in a distorted way, as a shadow or phantom, as a desire to drive our car off the cliff or that lovely tendency of Ishmael's to step into the street and methodically knock people's hats off.

Point being we banish grief for a bit so we can get the laundry done. But the work of the emotions and the spirit must be done too -- before the laundry or after the laundry or during the laundry: As you are folding or pouring detergent a moment comes to mind when you thought your whole happy life was laid out in front of you like a golden path to the sun. And then you realize you are here alone doing the laundry. So you make sure you have plenty of what you need to get through it. You stock up on balm.

That is the short answer that precedes the long answer. Those who prefer the short answer may stop here.

The long answer includes the following observation:

Today, when I open my e-mail, I am reminded: Each story is a gift.

You think back to Homer and that ilk. You think back to travelers meeting on a lonely plain, asking, Who are you and where are you from and what brings you to be traveling? They exchange tales and are brought into the fellowship of story. Neither traveler is a psychoanalyst. Homer was not a psychoanalyst. There was just the telling of tales. That was how you got better. You told your tale. You told your whole tale. You didn't condense it to fit. You didn't analyze it. Nobody analyzed it. They listened with appreciation and then after a sufficient interval they in turn told their tale, in full. The whole tale. Maybe afterwards we did some rituals up at the top of the hill.

This is my admittedly simplistic view of some admittedly simplistic "former time." What I'm getting at is why I chose to run your letter today, in its entirety, because what we do, all of us, as we sit around the fire, to get better, is we just listen to people's tales.

And then if there is injury, and the storyteller requests it, we humbly offer balm.

Lost a lover? There's stuff in here about that.

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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