This is an excerpt from a book in progress about how play can help children communicate their thoughts and feelings, including grief. The action picks up in the therapist’s office.
Nickie, at 8 ½, was not at all happy about seeing a “shrink.” “It was pathetic that they sent me here.” She hated her life. She had lived in a beautiful house before, and now she was squeezed into a small bedroom. Her new stepmother asked her what kind of curtains she would like, and she told her she wanted rags. The street was “pathetic,” the neighbors were “pathetic”. How could her father have married this woman?
Her stepmother “tries” to be a mother. “Nickie, what is your favorite cheese, and I will use it for your lunch basket?” Nickie noted she won’t eat the sandwich anyway, and it was probably poisoned. She went on, “In the morning, she wants to fix my hair. Take your hands off, I said, and take care of your own brat (referring Margaret, her new step sister).”
Nickie is short and squat, with a fireplug figure of a young lady. She has apple cheeks, very dark, piercing eyes, and black, curled ringlets. During the second session, she rolled up her long sleeves over her elbows as if ready for battle, and announced she would call me “Mort, for short.” I certainly had no objection.
Her litany continued. ”You can’t believe the pathetic meals my stepmother cooks. A la French. Coq a pathetic, pommes au gratin a pathetic. I want American food. McDonald’s is out, Kentucky Fried Chicken is out. All the foods my dad and I ate before this stupid marriage. My dad and I took care of everything, and we were happy until he met Selma. And she is only a librarian.”
Toward the end of the session, there was a definite change. Nickie became quiet and somber. When I noted her change in mood however, she was startled and annoyed with my observation. Someday she might want to talk, but not before she was good and ready, she proclaimed. Anyway, it we none of my business. I noted that this was a private place, and there was certainly no rush to do any talking.
Nickie’s mother died in a car accident in which Nickie’s mother was a passenger. The car was driven by a close family friend as they were going to a meeting in a nearby city. Both were killed in a head-on collision, which turned out to be the fault of a van driver who crossed the median of the highway.
There was a period of shock and numbness for the family members, including Nickie’s father and brother, Jason (one year younger than Nickie). Memories of the few months following the death were clouded, according to the father, but he felt that both children showed moments of intense sadness, loss and open weeping.
At first, Nickie functioned well even after her mother died. She was a very good student, read far ahead of her class level, and had an array of friends prior to the death. Since the death of her mother, she continued her high level of achievement in school, and continued to keep her many old friends.
Father also described the relationship of Nickie and her mother. He felt that they were like “two peas in a pod.” They were both outspoken, strong minded, and because of these qualities, they seem to enjoy and respect each other.
About 6 months after mother’s death, Dad met Selma, who was divorced and approximately his age. They married after a 6 month courtship, and the two families joined together, buying a new home. Nickie acquired a stepmother, a new house and a stepsister, Margaret, who was about Nickie’s age.
The impetus for the referral came from the parents who felt that Nickie was driving them crazy. It seemed that she was determined to break up this new family. She openly rejected almost any overture by the stepmother. Even a warm ride from school in the family car on a freezing day was dismissed by Nickie, while her stepsister climbed in the car.
Nickie was bitter and sarcastic; she made life impossible for her “pathetic” stepsister. The stepmother felt she was the victim of a stream of abuse. They worried that Nickie would succeed in her crusade to break up the family. They needed help right away.
This change in Nickie surprised father; he had always felt that while his daughter was strong minded, she was typically reasonable and reachable on troubling issues. These days, the parents reported, Nickie heard nothing, and made no response when they attempted to talk to her about family matters.
I saw Nickie weekly, and the parents every other week. In our early meetings, Nickie began each session with the latest “stupidities” of stepmother and stepsister. “Selma wanted ‘the girls’ to go out shopping at the mall to get some new outfits. No, thank you,” she responded. She had all the jeans and t-shirts she needed, and she didn’t want to end up looking like “Miss Goody Goody Margaret.” “And why is Margaret always being cozy and snuggling up to her (Nickie’s) father? Doesn’t she have a dad of her own?”
Nickie decided to develop a “Fuck Step-Mother Book” in her sessions to be kept in her private drawer. Page One presented her version of a balanced meal she would feed to her step-mother: drawings of Oreos, Twinkies, pop, and bubble gum. Page Two presented her wardrobe for the day: drawings of her torn jeans with holes in the knees, well worn t-shirts, definitely not washed. And a major page, the centerfold of the book, had Nickie’s mother return to live with them, after her step-mother died. The stepmother’s casket was buried. Nickie would not tolerate any comments as she created the pictures and told the story. She said that I was lucky that she allowed me to see her creations at all.
She began a number of sessions prepared to read a book she brought in from the library, or ready to practice her trumpet for the hour. When I commented it looked like she didn’t want to be here today, she countered: “Why should I? You only bring up bad stuff.” She drew a picture of MR. C. in handcuffs; he was shot through the heart. When I wondered about my crime, she said that I will tell her that her mother won’t come back anymore. She wiped her eyes several times after that remark.
At times, during the session, her mood changed from attacking and complaining to troubled. For example, in hushed tones. she said that sometimes she had bad memories of her mother: her mother did not smile a lot. She confessed that she really liked her kindergarten teacher before her mother died. She even had wishes that the “orange juice lady on television” (Anita Bryant) would be her mother, since she had a wonderful smile. I noted that all children, at times, had wishes for other mothers, especially when mom was out of sorts; it was very hard to remember those things when mothers had actually died. She wanted me to know that her stepmother had a “crooked face, not a smiling face.”
On the home front, the parents felt there was some letup of Nickie’s rage since she started therapy. She could still set the parents off, and the father felt anxious about his impulses to strike her at times when they were in the middle of an encounter. But both parents felt Nickie was much more anxious; they noted her frequent eye-blinking, fighting bedtime and going to sleep, and Nickie acknowledging that she felt scared at night.
This was the first time in the past year that Nickie admitted to having a feeling. Perhaps, they said, we were getting somewhere. They were less angry with her, and felt more empathic when they became aware she was suffering. And father was surprised that her saw her thumb-sucking, which had been a comforting habit she used up to the age of three. I suggested that coming to therapy was bringing many issues about her mother, the death, and settling into her new home. These thoughts were now closer to her consciousness and making her feel uncomfortable. We had been working for three months, and Nickie’s use her aggressive self was no longer as effective in keeping her from experiencing some of her underlying troubled feelings.
During the next few months, Nickie found it hard to come into the office at times.. Since the parents brought her for every session despite her occasional vigorous protest (“I’m not going there today or ever again”) she sat scowling in the waiting room for the hour. When I appeared from time to time to see if she might be ready, she covered her head with her jacket.
When she came into the office, she retreated to the couch. She rocked back and forth, began thumb-sucking, and said she was very cold. Did I have a blanket? I had a large towel in the bathroom, which I retrieved, and she wrapped herself up and lay in a fetal position. I said I thought she was very sad, and felt all alone. She cried, telling me she missed her old neighborhood. She goes into the woods to think about the old neighborhood. She misses the Good Humor Man, and she used to buy Strawberry Chocolate pops. She had special friends: they built forts, got supplies, made guns, knives and bullets, and also water bombs. They were her very special friends, and the fort is no longer there. She also liked being alone with her father in the old days., and she could brush off his dandruff when it appeared on his jacket . He was very good as a father He mended her socks, and took her food shopping.
I thought she missed her old neighborhood, her alone time with her father, and also her old mom. There was no one to hold her now, I suggested. She noted that after her mother died, she used to whisper the word “mom” a hundred times a day. She remembered that her mom was busy a lot at the computer, and she wasn’t allowed to use it—her mom said he might break it.
She wanted to make it dark in the office, and took the large towel into the closet to make a bed She was afraid to go to sleep at night, because she worried that she could die.. She had a special way of being with her mother every night. When she went to bed and when she was “one half near sleep” she could begin to rise up from her bed. Her spirit left her body, went up through the roof, through all the small clouds, and then she would meet her mother. Her mother lived on a very large cloud.
Over the next few sessions, she would enter the closet, make her bed, and continue the story. Across the large cloud , she could see her mother who wore a very special long dress, and who also had a beautiful diamond necklace, bracelets and earrings. Everything was “glowing” near mother: she “glowed” and the house she lived in behind her on the cloud also glowed. Her name was written on the house. Mother and daughter visited from a distance, and all was totally quiet. They never touched each other, and there was no need for speaking, since they could read each others minds. After the visit, she came back down, and was able to go to sleep. She used to visit every night at first, but visits much less now. She loves the idea that she can visit whenever she wants to.
She was anxious as she recounted the fantasy, and spoke almost inaudibly. I noted that Nickie developed this dream to soothe herself. She loved her mother, needed her, and her dream was a special way to keep her mother with her.
Nickie now brought in many snacks and ate vigorously to calm herself down as she worked in these sessions. She developed a new book called “memories” She drew her old house on Morningside Avenue, and a picture of her old bedroom. Geegee, her old cat, came alive on paper was white with black spots. He died before the mother’s accident. Nickie and Geegee slept together and kissed each other a lot. Geegee loved it when Nickie became a cat, and sprang around the room and bared her claws.
Sadly, she described how she opened the front door after school, calling out “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,” but there was no answer. She remembered the funeral hall. It was a very nice day, and Vickie (a close friend of her mother) led everyone singing some of the favorite songs her mother loved. Nickie joined in.
While Nickie was reliving some of the past, I spoke with the parents about some of Nickie’s needs. Were there ways they could share the past with her? Could they visit the old neighborhood together, etc.? Father recalled the small playground and park where Nickie loved to play. And surprisingly , he remembered the Good Humor Man that frequented the area. He also recalled the mail lady who was very friendly. And how Nickie waited for the candies that came with the mail. Mother, on the other hand, was worried that any overture she might offer would be roughly rejected, so she has been protecting herself from further “abuse”. She said that she would explore venturing out again with Nickie. I underlined the disloyalty issues that children experience. Getting close to stepmother irrationally meant getting rid of the old mother from their lives. Were there ways for the new mother to “join” with the old mother?
I was startled later in this period when I suddenly realized that Nickie was not referring to her step-mother as “Step-mother” or “Selma.” She talked about her as “Mom #2”. I learned that she and “Mom #2” visited “Mom #1” at her grave, and that they explored several photo albums of the family as Nickie grew up. Nickie was openly sad, the parents reported, and Mom #2 promised to cook “Weiner snitzle und Spaten” since the family loved the German cooking of the past. Nickie was also allowing Selma to comb and braid her hair, and occasionally sit on Selma’s lap. A number of times, “Mom#2” used the word “sweetie” referring to her step-daughter. Nickie bought a gift of a pair of gloves for her new mother on her birthday, But somehow managed to lose one of them. Mother welcomed the gift.
After about 6 months of work, I felt that Nickie had been mourning effectively, and that the new family was clearly coming together. However, I suddenly received a phone call from the father that NIckie’s fears, thumb-sucking and anger was again intensifying, and that they had a terrible week.
When I saw Nickie the following day, she told me she was much more frightened recently and “visiting” her mother much more frequently. She now HAD to go every night, instead of maybe once a week or less. She didn’t want to start the dream, but if she concentrated she could hear her mother calling her and she “rose up.” It was terrible, and she HAD to listen every night to her mother.
Now a mental discussion between them occurred. Mother wanted to know how the new mother was, and Nickie reassured her that she was very bad, and that she still loved her real mother very much. Her mother also told her not to talk to her therapist any more—he could be the devil.
We spent a number of sessions talking about her big struggle. She needed, like all girls her age, to have some real mothering in her life, which she was beginning to get from “Mom #2.” But as she felt closer to her step mom, she felt inside that she was slapping her mom in the face and throwing her out. She felt like a traitor. I suggested that if her real mom knew what was happening, she would be happy that her daughter was getting what she needed in order to grow up. After some work, Nickie calmed down.
As the family prospered, we set a termination date. Nickie brought in a dream during one of our last sessions. “An old oak tree housed birds and squirrels. A lumberjack came to destroy the tree. The birds tried to peck him to keep him away.” I suggested that I was the bad lumberjack who was cutting down the important tree-dream that she created, and in which she lived for a long time. The dream she developed was very important for her—she needed that dream to keep from being very lonely and sad. It was that dream that helped her go on with her life during a very bad time.
I have been in touch with Nickie and her family for many years. Nickie became a lawyer, and is presently a prosecutor in a District Attorney’s office. She is gay, married for 20 years, and is raising two girls who are in their early teens.