Home PageBlogWhen Abby Died

By Susan Reuling Furness, M.Ed., LCPC, LMFT, PTR

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes, 8 seconds 

Frigid rain peppers hard blackened snow. You continue to season my thoughts.

When I saw her in the waiting room last March I knew the lymphoma had recurred. She’d aged. Her shrunken profile barely stirred the air as she walked into my office. Undaunted, she wanted to write more of her memoir. As a Registered Poetry Therapist, I offer healing trances through spontaneous free writing and bibliotherapy, as well as hypnosis.

I met Abby several years ago in my poetry therapy group. To continue the work she began then, we agreed to meet in my office, unless the chemotherapy was debilitating, in which case we’d met at her home.

At first, I brought poems to prompt her writing. She wrote about her wedding, the honeymoon in Provence, and the day her mother purchased the Wedgewood teapot displayed in the kitchen. She actually slipped the teapot story into the teapot so her children would discover it in the future. Writing helped her good spirits stay alive.

Yet, I saw the need for a deeper trance, so I introduced hypnosis. She was wary, in part because she had spent years overcoming dissociation, which began with childhood abuse. Over time she grew to trust herself within the process of hypnosis.

She asked my opinion about wigs versus headscarves. She wanted to model wigs for me before deciding which to buy. One day she walked me through her gallery, showing me her new sketches. She asked me to accompany her to the lithographer’s office, where she approved proofs for a book of her art. Was this therapy? I doubted myself and questioned my professional boundaries.

Always kind and eager for a project, she adopted a young artist and sponsored a show of the woman’s canvases. In our sessions she talked about her family. Her pen captured the worst of times, but mostly she remembered the best.

Hypnosis was a safety net when she was in pain, or afraid. Each trance became a deeper, more satisfying experience. Still, I questioned the guidance I offered– how to respond when she despaired. Was I to encourage hope, or acceptance of death? It seemed so important to find the right reflection and an appropriate suggestion.

By November, the cancer was in remission. She celebrated the end of treatment, but soon caught a cold. The lingering cough suggested she was really not well. In December the doctor declared the cancer had spread to her lungs. She was “given” six months to live. Why this sudden change in prognosis? We discussed getting another opinion.

I visited her after Christmas. My work offered warm imagery to combat her uncontrollable chills. Abby’s unconscious mind airlifted her to beaches beside the Aegean Sea. She told me she was waiting for results from another biopsy. When the results arrived, a new treatment protocol was prescribed to begin the following week. For once I had a clear vision. I would facilitate a trance-escape from the pain while she waited for that treatment to begin. I remember how she stood up, flashed a grin, and cracked a subtle joke as I left that day.

Abby died two days later. As the reality settled in, I ruminated about the unfinished therapy. We did not do “end of life” work as it is described in textbooks. Had I been helpful? Too cautious, or too casual? Had I lost perspective? Why did I not see she was near death that final day? Abby was at peace, but I was not. I wanted another chance to ease her transition. My work felt incomplete, insufficient, and far from perfect. I was not Milton Erickson. Damn!

But isn’t imperfection the best we can offer? We are deluded if we believe anything else. My colleagues helped me see my way through, and I arrived at a handful of conclusions:

This intelligent, beautiful soul put me in trance–a therapy trance. Her presence and the power of her narrative drew me deeper and deeper into her life and her family. Then death snapped its fingers and the trance was undone. The pink slip arrived without fanfare or certificates of merit. No more planning to get it right. My work with Abby will remain imperfect forever.

Not unlike a love affair, therapy creates a mutual trance as we grow to care about the people we serve. Every client pulls us into the trance. If we resist we remain bookish and stiff, lukewarm, only half there. Who can relate to a pretense of perfection? Clients deserve more. The therapy trance moves us beyond theory to a real place — one where we may hesitate, stumble, or fall on our faces. Yet when we relax with those frayed edges, they serve as a mirror for the other’s living and dying. What better gift can we give than the acceptance of being human and imperfect? What better gift to give ourselves.


This excerpt has been extracted from Volume 33, Issue No. 3 of The Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter

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