Examined Lives: The Wooden Box

By Barry J. Jacobs

On a scorching day at my step-father’s graveside, I stood slightly outside the circle of 20 mourners, present but distant. In my hands, strange to me, was the wooden box.  I wasn’t thinking about its contents of bone cinders and fine ash but of the surprising coolness to the touch of its dark mahogany veneer and polished brass latch.  I listened impassively to my step-sister’s tearful remembrances of her party-boy father and to her cousin’s choked sobs recalling her favorite, most loving uncle. I had promised myself–especially during his decline from dementia–that I wouldn’t speak at his funeral on his behalf. So I stood watching in silence now, holding tight to his box of cremains.

wooden_boxAt the time he married my mother when I was 17, he had little interest in me or use for my impudence. For my part, I hated his sullenness when sober and boisterous prejudices when drunk—so unlike my deceased father. We learned to give each other wide berth, maintaining a tepid cordiality punctuated by infrequent clashes. This worked for over 30 years until he started losing his mind. Because I am my mother’s son and a clinician specializing in treating families dealing with illness, I felt it was my duty to assist my mother with the caregiving. That brought me into greater contact with not only him but many difficult feelings. Like many caregivers before me with a history of bad family relationships, I felt with fresh intensity the old resentment I held for the man I was now committed to helping.

In his last three years, I moved my step-father and mother up from Florida to live in an apartment a mile from me and my family. I went about the enervating business of seeing them several times a week for meals and doctor’s appointments. I visited him (irregularly) after he was placed in a nursing home. To deal with caring for someone I’d long detested, I had to shut off all of my feelings. I had to be rigidly self-contained, keeping up the polished veneer of the grimly resolute caregiver to coolly carry out my joyless caregiving efficiently. On the outside, I myself became a kind of wooden box. Inside, though, I felt empty of purpose and energy at times. I burned with anger, at other times, towards the hostile man he’d been and the vexing burden he’d become.

This was exactly what I always counsel family caregiver clients to strive to prevent—to not lose one’s self during caregiving, to not turn wooden and callous just to keep difficult emotions in check. But it seemed so much easier to completely shut off. What possibility could there be for resolving my past feelings with this vague, addled man in life or death? Yet even as I stood there silently on that July day, I felt a bit chagrined. I was in a responsible enough position at this auspicious moment to closely grip his box. Yet, dreamy in the hot sun, I held myself as far away from the unfolding scene as my psyche would allow.

And then someone suddenly whisked the wooden box from my hands and nestled it into the shallow, open grave. Others cried; I was too shut off to react. As part of the Jewish funeral ritual, a line formed to shovel dirt over the box but I stood there in a daze. I finally snapped to attention when I saw my 17-year-old son grab the long-handled spade. If he could do religious duty for a step-grandfather he hardly knew, so could I. I got into line and went through the motions of helping bury my step-father.

But though his ashes went underground, I didn’t entirely bury him. For too long, I did too good a job of shutting off and not processing what I felt. Six months after his death, I haven’t shaken all the woodenness. Hard as I try to come to terms with my relationship with him and put him to rest and myself at ease, I still find the box sealed. I’ve wound up carrying its weight and burden still. My hands still tightly embrace it.

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Barry J. Jacobs, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist and the Director of Behavioral Sciences for the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program in Springfield, PA. A TEDMED Great Challenges Team Member for The Caregiving Crisis, he is the author of “The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers—Looking After Yourself and Your Family While Helping an Aging Parent” (2006, Guilford) and the forthcoming “Caregiving Family Stories & Beliefs,” a collection of 25 of his previously published essays and case stories on families and illness.

This post originally appeared on the Collaborative Family Healthcare Association’s Families & Health Blog.