Ruth came to my office in deep anguish and fear. She was a well-groomed woman in her early 50s who spoke in a soft, rushed monotone, with an urgency and quality of desperation in her voice. She flooded the room in a torrent of words and tears, as if she needed to tell her story without interruption in fear of not being able to finish.
Ruth had lived with a disastrous marriage—a sordid relationship of alcoholism and extramarital affairs for more than 25 years. Her husband had been a binge drinker, and when he was drunk he became viciously cruel and abusive; she responded in kind. Somehow he had been able to hold a well-paid managerial position with a company for many years, but eventually he was fired because of his chronic alcohol problem and related patterns of behavior.
One evening while Ruth and her husband were lying in bed, the television malfunctioned and caught fire. The bedroom filled with smoke, and the drapes began to burn. Ruth's husband, attempting to extinguish the flames with his bathrobe, was burned on more than 80 percent of his body. He died a painful death three days later.
Ruth wept bitterly as she related the vivid details of holding her husband's lifeless hand and trying to comfort his charred body during those last three horrible days. She hated him, and yet she had tried to love him in his dying. She was bitter and angry, and yet she desperately sought forgiveness and reconciliation.
He died in great pain, but Ruth's pain in living was only beginning. Her adult daughter refused to attend her father's funeral; she hated her father and blamed her mother for his drinking, the ugly relationship, and for his death. Subsequently, both she and her brother had moved out of town and refused to visit or even communicate with their mother.