Stephanie Brody is a BPSI Psychoanalyst Member. Her below remarks originally appeared in the Spring-Summer 2020 issue of the BPSI Bulletin, which can be read here.
Dvořák wrote the Stabat Mater following the loss of his three children in short succession. There was no pandemic in 1875 when Dvořák composed the piece. The work, for chorus and orchestra, launched his career, a great success that was an ironic consequence of grief. The title comes from the first line of a thirteenth century hymn—”Stabat mater dolorosa”—the sorrowful mother stood weeping. It is a prayer of mourning for the losses that cannot be altered or avoided.
As I write, we are all working from home, observing the rise of illness and mortality, economic upheaval, and fear that is a consequence of the COVID-19 virus. The long-term impact of the global pandemic is uncertain and likely will be unprecedented. It is hard to find meaning in the silver lining stories from past plagues: Newton’s theory of gravity, Shakespeare’s King Lear, Boccaccio’s Decameron. The reminders of “upside” consequences are hard to value in light of the apprehensiveness that is enveloping our community and our daily functioning. I can imagine the Italian villa within the hilly landscape of Fiesole where Boccaccio created a story of plague distraction, but it’s hard for me to enlist an agreeable diversion when so many are suffering. Grappling with a world bent by the sweeping force of a microbe, I am reminded once again of mortality, uncertainty, and the illusion of omnipotence.
Though death is an expected consequence of life, we all prefer it to remain at the sidelines—a fact to be dealt with in the future. Not now. Today has become the future we hoped to avoid. At the beginning of this year, the word existential dominated the conversation: the existential crisis threatening our democracy, the Constitution, and the rule of law; the existential threat to the Earth itself, a consequence of climate warming—a mortal danger to the planet. The beginning of 2020 seems like ages ago, a recent past when the activists were sounding the alarm for our future. Just weeks later, real time loss is upon us, a threat that cannot be ignored.
Within the therapeutic dyad, we depend on the reliability of the present moment as we dive into layers of past and future. Though we diligently set the clock for every session, our open-ended approach, our patience and appreciation of an evolving process, bolsters a sense of “timelessness.” We join our patients in wishful thinking, as though our work may go on forever. Succumbing to indulgent thoughts, too often we regard ourselves as immune to our existential fate. These illusions provide a form of protection against the reality of life’s inevitable risks. Evolving narratives establish continuity and interact with the intimacy of the therapeutic relationship. In the uniqueness of each dyad, we create a tiny piece of eternity.
But Death is an equal opportunity companion: interfering, galvanizing, and devastating our lives. Facemasks, gloves, and retreat are flimsy protections from the grim reaper. For me, the signature of the current president—a thick length of jagged black spikes—ominously resembles the statistical visuals that reflect mounting rates of illness and mortality. Today, we all share Death’s presence as we worry about our friends, family, and colleagues, as well as countless strangers who have been swept into the deadly plague. We are immersed as the helpers and the vulnerable are struck down. In the relative safety of our new consulting room space, we are frozen or occasionally dropped by the instability of the internet. The eerie jolt of this new reality toys with our long sought foundational relevance: constancy and connection that can bear the intensity of feeling.
Our patients worry about us. It has become clear that a caretaker can become a patient. Mortality is a shared fate that no fantasy can erase, especially now. The space we create across digital platforms does not foil scrutiny. Signs of health or illness are not easily concealed. When our frailty is on the table, illusion is thin skinned. We are faced with a new liminality, filled with random losses and disintegrating fantasies. Survival and mourning, always part of the psychoanalytic landscape, are infused with the terror of the here and now. What future will emerge from this new reality?
Perhaps Dvořák’s music expresses the conflict that we face during this time. The fifth movement seems joyful and buoyant. But behind the lilting waltz, there is a darker meaning. This is a dance of death. When the tempo is hurried it can feel frantic, a manic escape. At a slower pace, the music is effortful, burdened under the weight of mourning. Just shy of darkness, the chorale sings the complexity of life in the face of death. We remember Dvořák, the father, who made music of his loss. In the spring of 2020, the mother stands in grief, for the loss that is to come, but also in outrage. The soulless leadership, the sheer incompetence, the self-aggrandizement that has been accepted by too many, has resulted in mortal wounds, economic peril, and disoriented communities—pain and suffering that could have been avoided. This mother is angry. How will we bear our patients’ grief and anxiety while coping with waves of uncertainty? We will need to compose new music over the weeks and months that are yet to come. We have no choice but to bind ourselves to this new place, looking for comfort in the new unknown, emerging from this nightmare to a future we could never have imagined.
Stephanie Brody, PsyD is a Supervising and Training Analyst at Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, and Lecturer in Psychology, Department of Psychiatry (part-time), Harvard Medical School and a Clinical Associate in Psychology and Attending Psychologist, McLean Hospital. She is one of the editors, with Frances Arnold, PhD, of Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Women and Their Experience of Desire, Ambition and Leadership (2019) and the author of Entering Night Country: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Loss and Resilience (2016). Click here to watch her interview about Entering Night Country recorded in the BPSI library in 2016.
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