Excerpt from Slay Your Dragons With Compassion
Raj, Susan and Conor
Raj was in one of my one-off groups in the beautiful holiday destination of Atsitsa in Greece. He’d been married for ten years and as his wife approached the menopause their relationship changed. Her sex drive was less but his stayed the same. He found the withdrawal of the sexual connection difficult and painful. They had sex from time to time, which alleviated his frustration briefly and drew the sting out of the situation. It feels like a mercy fuck when they do it, I thought to myself.
Raj and his wife shared their lives and the care of their children amiably. He was relentlessly positive and rarely showed any chink of vulnerability. He appeared almost aloof and demonstrated a practised amiability. He spent hours in the gym and had his own import/export business which he ran from home. However, without touch in their relationship, however, there was a huge gap for Raj.
“It’s not the sex. I can deal with that. It’s the emotional connection from skin on skin – the lack of it drives me mad. It’s so painful. It’s like the intimacy has been sucked away.”
His face crumpled and tears appeared in his eyes.
“What would you like from the group?” I asked him.
He looked around and engaged with others in a way I’d never
seen him do before. He made genuine eye contact with people in the circle and held it receptively. He allowed the others to see him in a place of vulnerability – which normally only his wife would have access to.
“I’d really love it if someone would touch my face. I don’t mind who. Anyone who wants to,” he said spontaneously.
It was a difficult and emotionally raw ask. But three people stood up, sat down next to him in the centre of the circle and gently stroked his face. It was a tender moment, appearing seemingly from nowhere.
After some time, a soft crying emerged from the other side of the circle. Susan, a gentle Irish woman, was sobbing. Raj basked in touch for a couple more minutes against the backdrop of Susan’s sobs. When I sensed Raj felt content, I turned my attention toward Susan, who was being comforted by the person next to her.
“Would you like to share what’s going on?” I asked her.
The words tumbled out of her.
“Five years ago I met the love of my life, in the gym. His name was Conor. I know this sounds really corny, but in that moment, when our eyes met, we fell in love in a way I’d never experienced before, and that love continued for the whole five years I was with him.
“He was an IRONMAN triathlete, had two kids from a previous marriage, and I saw such a beautiful soul inside this powerful muscular body. He later told me that when he met me he saw light shining from the top of my head. We were inseparable from that moment and moved in together a few months later. It was the purest love I’ve ever felt.”
This, to me, was a rarity, where falling in love seamlessly morphed into the art of loving. The group’s attention was rapt.
“Three years later Conor started getting pains in his stomach and went to his doctor, who assured him there was no serious problem and diagnosed acid reflux. This didn’t feel right, and despite having a chest X-ray which showed us that it wasn’t lung cancer, it took two years before his doctor X-rayed his stomach and found a massive cancer there. I was furious because it had been obvious that the problem was in his stomach and that it took so long for them to finally investigate it. Conor knew he was going to die, and he lost weight quickly.
“I’d go to bed praying, ‘Take me rather than him, for his children’s sake,’” said Susan.
From the October cancer diagnosis until the following April when he died, his body was in agony. Susan never flinched from being by his side and she found that stroking his face was a joy for both of them. Every time she touched him, he would smile at her through his pain and say, “I love you.”
For the last month of his life he was in a hospice which overlooked the Slieve Gullion mountains and the Quays shopping mall where Susan had watched Conor perform his first IRONMAN triathlon. The nurses had put a fold-down bed next to Conor’s so they could sleep facing each other at night. They spent time listening to songs and selecting which ones would be played at his funeral. One day, he’d just chosen the sixth and final song, a Celtic football anthem – “Over & Over/ Celtic Song” (Conor was a Celtic fan) – and as they listened, she felt him dying. As he took his last breath, she slid her hand under his head and whispered in his ear.
“Conor, the windows are open, the mountains are outside, fly out of your body and meet me on the other side.”
Then, another ricochet reverberated around the group and, one by one, four of us shared a story about the loss of a loved one. I shared Melissa’s story, with tears pouring down my face. The entire group was powerfully present, a response to the clarity and dignity of this grief, and the atmosphere in the room was calm, tender and electric. Susan turned to me at the end of the session.
“Thank you. I feel so much lighter. I never dreamed I’d be able to share this here. You created a space to heal my soul and it felt so safe to express my heart.”
As Susan observed Raj surrendering to the touch of those who supported him, she was thrown into the memory of her own story. It was a powerful ricochet she wasn’t expecting, and it released a depth of feeling that she’d been unable to access since Conor’s death. As others in the group witnessed the purity of Susan’s love and loss, they too were ricocheted into their own loves and losses. The Ricochet Effect is usually unexpected – as we all experienced that day.
About the Author: Malcolm Stern has worked as a group and individual psychotherapist for nearly 30 years. He is co-founder and co-director of Alternatives at St James’s Church, London's most important spiritual events platform, since 1982. Stern also teaches and runs groups internationally. His first book Falling in Love, Staying in Love was published in 2004. Malcolm also co-presented with Vanessa Lloyd Platt, the Channel 4 series on relationships Made for Each Other in 2003 and 2004.
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