John is dead

I knew a man called John

John is dead. He died of cancer. He died a few weeks ago, but we only found out last week because our therapist broke the news.

For the past 14 years, John had been part of small psychodynamic psychotherapy group in North London. I joined that group 3 years ago, after coming back from the Netherlands. We met every Thursday at 5pm, for 90 minutes. That one hour and a half every week was the most contact John had with the outside world. In a lot of significant ways, we were his last social link to the world.

John lived alone. He spent his time sitting in his chair. He would often say that he'd been sitting in that chair for 20 years, unable to move. For the first year I thought he was speaking metaphorically. Then as I got to know him, I learned was speaking literally.

John's life was so barren, devoid of people, energy and movement, he would spend all his time in his chair, in his home, never moving.

It's hard to express just how sad John made me feel. When you meet someone you know is lonely, the first feeling is sometimes sympathy, or pity. That was true for John, until he would talk about some of the things that happened to him in his life. Then it descended into something deeper. Darker. Most despairing. He said he was at therapy as a desperate last-move to save himself, though he was quite convinced that it wouldn't help undo the things that happened to him.

His life was made up of shattered fragments of bitter storytelling. He'd been married to a woman for a number of years. Had two daughters.

But at some point in the 90s or 80s, something happened with his wife – I never really found out – that meant he was taken to court, and lost custody of his daughters.

After that, he'd been in a serious car accident. Combined with some other accident in his childhood, it meant he walked with a stick, with one leg shorter than the other. He wore the same big, black, custom leather shoes every week. It gave him the air of an industrial worker. They were almost clown-like in their size.

His life was a wreck. But that was nothing compared to what happened to him before he was even born. I feel compelled to write about John because his story, his family's story would be otherwise lost forever. I don't know how much of this breaks a protocol or unwritten therapeutic practice. But the ache I feel when I think about John makes me want to communicate his story.

He had no reason to fabricate any of it, and early on in my time with him, he shared a written piece that painted a brutal picture of the upbringing he had. The horrific context to his life. This generational trauma he carried his entire life, that he has now taken with him to the grave.

It is this particular element of his life that I find the most upsetting. That John never found peace in his own history. At least not with us, his therapy group that he attended as a last-ditch attempt to make sense of it.

John had the hardest mask of any person I've ever met. With his sheer stubbornness, he maintained a facade that was held in place for 70 years. Only once or twice, did it slightly slip, and when it did, it revealed a sadness that I find hard to recall or touch again.

The emotions are almost too overwhelming. Which troubles me more, because it is exactly the reason why John kept the mask firmly in place. He didn't want to share his pain, but it calcified in him until there was barely anything left of himself.

Our therapist last said that he starved himself of attention, or love in an attempt to relieve his guilt of being alive. I can't imagine how that must of felt like, but I feel in a way honoured that he let us know a bit of how it did feel.

Only once did John mention his younger siblings, 'the babies in the snow'.

John was Polish, but born and raised in India in a British camp, just after the second world war. During one session he gave us a piece of A4 with his families account during the war.

My family lived in the part of Poland which was invaded by the Soviets. When the Soviet planes were bombing and strafing our parents used to tell the children to run for the woods on our farm. Attacked from every side by hugely superior numbers and technology, it was only a matter of time before Poland was overrun. The Nazis alone had 14 times as many tanks and 5 times as many planes as the Poles.

People who have lived under both Nazis and Soviets often say the Soviets were worse.

They shipped out a million people, only a fraction of whom survived.

They came at 2am in February 1940. Eventually my family finished up in a labour camp not far from Archangelsk, near the Arctic circle. They were moved mainly by train and barge. Barges were often used as transport.

My mother`s youngest child died on such a barge while they were being transported. My mother bribed the captain with her wedding ring to pull over to the bank so the baby could be buried. The ground was frozen, so she, the baby Teresa, had to be buried in a snow bank.

Many people died in the camp. The old and the young didn't last long. My mothers next youngest child, 5 year old Marian, died next, followed by 6 year old Danuta. My sister Zofia, 8 at the time, knew she was next. She prayed she could have a piece of bread before she died, not with anything on it, just a plain piece of bread.

John loved his sister Zofia. Her experience of the camps and her starvation had given her an obsessive attitude to food. Her tables were always filled with food, and when he spent time with her, all she would do was feed him. He loved the attention, but there was a deep anxiety to it all.

Last year, Zofia died, falling down some stairs. With that fall, John was left alone. It was around about then, that his cancer got worse.

John had about 4 cancers in his body - across his kidneys, liver, bone and I think pancreas. He had been living with these cancers for years. I was amazed he was in the state he was. He was in such poor state, I knew he probably didn't have long to live.

I tried to forget my own experiences and professional work when I was in our group therapy. I was desperate for him to go to the Marie Curie hospice, to meet the teams and begin palliative care, but I didn't try to help him. It wasn't about helping him practically, but helping him engage with his own life, uncover, investigate it.

John was indignant about his treatments. He didn't want to go the hospice. He would pour over all the research, all the findings, all the papers about his treatments he was getting at the Royal Free. He would undergo numerous surgeries and treatments to keep the cancers at bay.

His life was a litany of abuses. His body was under siege, eating away at itself. But he was somehow managing to stay alive.

We talked with him about his attitude to life as staying as still as possible, to stay alive as long as possible, without actually living.

He wasn't living for anything in particular. His daughters, now adults, had a strained relationship with him. One lived in California and he barely saw her. They loved him dearly, obviously, it was clear to us. But he would not tell them the extent of his illness. We knew more about him than his own family. We knew the pain he carried, about his family, his sister. But we felt it too.

I struggle to make sense of what happened in John's life. On one level, I really felt his silence mirrored my own grandmother, who fled the Russians after the second world war, and grandfather who was imprisoned by the Russians in a Gulag. Their silence, their coldness in raising my mother in refugee camps in Germany has imprinted on me, and my brothers, in a way that is hard to describe. It is one large reason I am in therapy myself. It is perhaps one reason why John and I were together in the first place.


Just before Christmas, John was talking about wanting to take a trip to Japan. It was the last place he'd ever wanted to go.

In those last session, with cancer throughout his body, his life in a frozen stasis, he lit a candle for this life he'd once had. I was talking about my recent marriage, and how happy I was. He talked about meeting his wife for the first time. A woman he'd met in the US, in California, and the adventure they'd had.

This John, this mysterious younger John, without any of the agony of injury and cancer, perhaps successfully suppressing his family history, was a man full of life. He talked about meeting this beautiful woman, convincing her to travel with him across the Southwest in a car, going from state to state. He laughed as he recounted his stories about the Grand Canyon and Florida swamps. It was so beautiful to see this younger, care-free man shine through this frozen, still man in front of me.

That was the last time I saw him.

After Christmas, notes would come through - making excuses, which were common - that he couldn't come to the therapy session. He was ill. He couldn't travel.

We knew it was coming eventually. I knew it would come. I didn't know how I felt about it. I still don't.

I didn't think I'd ever mourn the loss of someone like John. Grieve for his life, his sister, his family. These people I never met.

But in his quiet way, he taught me a lot about sadness, loss, life and myself. He was like a friend to me, even a father to me. He was this man I talked with, about every little detail in my inner life, every Thursday for an hour and a half, and now he's gone.

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