I was privileged to be with a woman dying of leukemia, whose bone marrow transplant was unsuccessful. More painful than the weeks in the isolation unit, losing her hair, and the transplant itself was her desperate struggle to feel loved by her broken family. Throughout her short life she had been abandoned by an alcoholic mother, abused by an angry father, and humiliated by grandparents. In her last months, knowing that the transplant was unsuccessful and the leukemia kept feeding on her body, she fought her hardest battle to make peace with her family and ask for what she needed.
Carla’s father responded by traveling to the Cancer Center to be with her for her transplant. But, she said, he was only with her physically, and she felt the old sting of separation and alienation from the man from whom she most wanted to feel love. And gradually, her determination and fight soured into anger and resentment. She looked like a red roaring flame of rage, and her tone of voice hissed like a coiled snake. The nursing staff confronted her, avoided her, and told me they felt drained after working with her. Carla told me she wanted to shrivel up and die. She said she felt like an old prune without any juice left.
I held out my cupped hands and asked her if she would allow me to keep her hope and her love for her in a safe place. “I will keep it in a chamber of my heart, under lock and key”, I told her. I would guard and nurture those energies, and she could have the hope and love back whenever she felt strong enough again to carry them herself. The hope and love were hers and I was merely holding her potential for healing, because, I told her, I believed in her timing, her process, and her own resources. She needed a guardian for her struggle, someone who would champion and encourage her when she felt like giving up, but wanted to go on. Carla needed an external mirror to remind her that she once experienced love and healing, and could again. She needed permission to feel disappointed. She needed a way to allow the energy of anger and resentment to spend itself dry without adding to her dis-ease.
It was a simple act of symbolic holding that I performed. Sometimes it is just a part of oneself that needs to be held, cradled, comforted, and protected. In Carla’s case, it was her healthy, hopeful, loving Self that needed a safe space. I created a visual image by cupping my hands, showing Carla where she could lay her hope and love, like a wounded child into a caretaker’s arms.
Weeks later Carla told me she felt she had made peace and that she felt strong enough to take back her hope and love. She told me that I had shown her a way to accept all the parts of herself, because I was willing to acknowledge and validate her rage. Once validated rather than judged, she could spend time trying to understand and work with her feelings. She did not feel that she could have attended to the work of understanding her rage, if she had been worried about the “good” parts of her, the hope and love, being harmed.
Carla died soon afterwards. When I think of Carla now, I remember a snapshot of time as I held my cupped hands towards her and she put both her hands in mine. That moment was an act of faith in her own powers of resolution and healing, and in my ability to nurture and safeguard a precious part of her. And in the next instant I remember the moment when she asked for her hope and love back, and the courage that it must have taken to believe in and act from a position of peace. That moment of peace was also her moment of healing.