“Achilles’ cursed anger… which started
A myriad sufferings for the Achaens.”
Homer; opening verses of The Iliad
He was one of six brothers. I met him because his mother had severe rheumatoid arthritis. She was a frail, small, slender woman who was the epitome of patience and kindness. She was married to a man who was maybe an inch taller and five pounds heavier than she was, yet was her polar opposite. Loud; brash; demanding; a dictator in the most literal sense of the word. She had raised six boys with soft words and a velvet glove. He had pushed, coaxed, screamed at, and yes, beaten all of them into becoming financially successful and responsible citizens. In retrospect, it was her kindness and not his bullying that produced such good results, but one would be hard pressed to convince the father of what seemed to me to be an obvious truth.
After she became my patient her husband followed. All of the sons were adults by the time I met her. Most of them also became my patients, as did most of their wives. She died in her late eighties of a heart attack; the father died of cancer. All of the sons were remarkably healthy, their only blemish being that they shared significant loads of anxiety and repressed resentment. To a man they were all hard working, loyal, very straight solid citizens.
Ten years after his mother died the man we’re talking about today came to see me. Mostly he wanted to talk. His wife had a very aggressive form of breast cancer and was not expected to survive. He was having trouble sleeping, and the load of being a caregiver and a successful businessman was beginning to drain him. I made sure that he was otherwise healthy, and I spent some time counseling (listening to) him.
It was five years before I saw him again. His wife had passed away. After two years of mourning he joined an Internet-based group of people who shared his hobby. For the life of me I can’t remember what it was that they collected, but I do recall that it was an unusual passion and that I found it completely uninteresting. He traveled extensively throughout the Midwest to attend meetings and shows. He met a woman his age who shared his interest and his values, and they married soon afterward. He came to see me for a checkup, and to ask if his new wife could join my practice.
He looked terrific. For the first time ever I did not notice any of the tense and fastidious attention to duty and detail that had been his training for all of his life. He was making plans to sell his business and devote the rest of his life to his new wife and their hobby. He was secure and determined.
A few years passed. They did well. Medically they had no issues, and for two people who had been used to having things their own way they got along well and had few disagreements. I received a call from him. He had been involved in a car accident. He was briefly hospitalized in Ohio. His wife had died in the collision. He had been told to see me to follow up on his treatment.
I saw him the next day. I asked the secretary to make him the last appointment for the day, because I felt that he would need extra time. He had a few bruises, but otherwise I did not see anything that needed significant care. My job this day would be to listen.
Talk to me. Tell me what happened.
“We were at a show. The big one; lots of people from all over the country. There was so much to see, and we met a few couples we did not know.”
“It got late. We decided that we wouldn’t drive back to St. Louis in the dark. We asked someone at the gas station for a motel we could stay at.”
A moment of silence. As if he were trying to make up his mind about what he was going to say.
“It was dark. And you know how they build these motels on service roads and places out of the way. We got lost. It was like we knew where the motel was, behind this tall building, but we did not know how to get there.”
I understand. It’s late, and you’re tired, and you can think of nothing else other than a clean bathroom and a bed to lie on. And people are so bad at giving directions…
“That’s what happened. We got to an intersection. I wanted to turn right. My wife said the man had asked us to go straight. I think he had said right. I began to turn right; she hollered at me to go straight. We began to argue.”
He began to fidget. Hands; legs. There was a hint of a tear.
You can guess the rest. He says that he thinks he’s right; she says that isn’t this the way he always is; always thinks he’s right. He never listens to another opinion; he says of course he does; he gets angry and tells her I’ll do it your way. He hurries across the intersection without looking to his right; a fast moving car hits his car on the passenger side. She died instantly.
I don’t know what to say. It’s obvious that he blames himself, but there is a deeper issue at play. As a child he was punished and subdued whenever he showed any kind of a temper; in fact he was rarely given the chance to have an opinion. Now he’s upset because he thinks that his loved one is dead because he had an opinion and he displayed his temper.
Look: I can tell that you feel guilty about this. It was an accident.
“I was driving. I should have looked.”
It was an accident. You go straight five seconds later and nothing happens. You can’t avoid everything; sometimes lightning strikes.
“I should have looked.” Now there are many tears; a long moment of silence. “I didn’t tell her children that we were arguing. I couldn’t.”
It was an accident. Couples snap at each other all the time. Her children know that; there’s no reason for them to be told that what happened maybe could have been avoided. None.
“You don’t think so?” A different look now. Maybe I’ve found another reason for his guilt.
I don’t think so. You had a great relationship. You had fun together. She had wonderful years with you. That’s all that’s important. Please grieve and miss her, but don’t throw all of the good things away because of guilt. Keep the good moments.
You’ll be busy with paperwork and forms and guests for a few weeks. Once everyone returns to their normal routine you’ll feel worse. Give me a call when this happens; we’ll talk again.
He thanks me; I give him a hug. He did as he was told. He’s still doing well.