Kaethe Weingarten of the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School recently published a paper describing her experience with four clients who experienced chronic sorrow. The clients, who were all successful, vibrant women, had different pasts and different conditions that caused them to lose their sense of self. Despite these differences, the result was the same for each. They struggled with a sense of deep sadness or chronic sorrow. In one’s case, illness had caused her to lose her independence and ability to live the life she once knew. Another woman became addicted to medication that was prescribed to treat a health problem. The addiction led to psychosis that lasted two years. The third woman was born with a heart defect and has lived a life of longing to be the woman she knows she cannot be. The fourth woman was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. After over a decade of being doubted by family members, medical professionals, and even therapists, this client eventually committed suicide.
Weingarten, having dealt with her own disability, is all too familiar with the shift from a life of autonomy and ability to one of utter dependence and incapacity. She believes her own experience and those of her clients gives her an insight into chronic sorrow and how to best approach this issue with patients. First, Weingarten believes that chronic sorrow is rooted in a loss of self. The self-narrative of those living with chronic sorrow becomes shattered, dissociative, and disrupted. This can happen as a result of one catastrophic event, such as a debilitating medical diagnosis, or a series or progression of events and symptoms, as was the case for the client with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Regardless of how it occurs, this broken narrative is not one that can be fixed. Instead, Weingarten believes that companionship and compassionate witnessing are the keys to living with, and not necessarily overcoming, chronic sorrow.
She believes that witnessing requires developing an empathic understanding of a client’s situation and taking actions to alleviate the psychological pain that ensues. Rather than trying to fully understand, a compassionate witness should accept that they will never fully be able to feel the feelings or loss of their client. Instead of pathologizing and labeling these clients’ reactions to loss of self as bipolar, schizophrenic, or psychotic, a truly compassionate witness will empathize without ever really understanding. “People who live with chronic sorrow need accompaniment,” said Weingarten. By this, she means that clients with chronic sorrow need someone to be with them as they discover how they will interact with the limitations of their minds and bodies. It means showing them the way to peace, teaching them how to tolerate the inconsistency of their lives with support, education, and even humor. It also means requires self-care so that the therapist can be aware of the client’s own boundaries while they take this journey with their client. Weingarten does not believe chronic sorrow can be fixed or healed. But she believes it can be lived with and she suggests compassionate witnessing and companionship as ways to do that.
Weingarten, Kaethe. Sorrow: A therapist’s reflection on the inevitable and the unknowable. Family Process 51.4 (2012): 440-55. Print.
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