Dreaming into death: An interview with Rikki Ricard—conducted by Seth Aichele

(Rikki Ricard, FIPA, is a psychoanalyst in Seattle and her husband, Adrian Jarreau, also a psychoanalyst in Seattle, died 10 months after his diagnosis with cancer. Both were graduates of the Northwestern Psychoanalytic Society & Institute (NPSI) in Seattle, Washington.)

Rikki: Hi.

Seth: Hi. So, it’s a little bit mysterious to me—the process of having an intuition that we should address the idea of death in this issue. Because at that time, Morry Tolmach’s death was not on my radar (Morry Tolmach was an icon in the psychotherapy/psychoanalytic community in Seattle, Washington.)

Rikki: Wow.

Seth: And the second part of the intuition was to talk to you, and even though I knew about Adrian, I didn’t know that you wrote a chapter for a book published this year. The chapter is titled “Dreaming into death.” What’s the name of the book again?

Rikki: The name of the book is Body as Psychoanalytic Object: Clinical Applications from Winnicott to Bion and Beyond.

Seth: And you actually wrote this chapter with Adrian, before he died?

Rikki: Well, do you want to hear that story?

Seth: Please.

Rikki: When Adrian was dying, the people at NPSI had, unbeknownst to us, sent out asking for people to contribute —what ended up being money—to give to us, to do something with.

And they came over—three of them: the president and a couple of other NPSI people—came over to give it to us. And while they were here, we told them this story of Adrian having two dreams.

This was in 2017. We went to Cozumel in February of that year. And he had two dreams in which he died in the same night, which is a very rare thing. I mean, often you dream that you’re dying, but you very rarely dream that you actually die.

Rikki: After the first dream he woke up and said he was snorkeling, and blowing water out of the snorkel, and instead of that, he swallowed it, and he… he died. He woke up, and we processed it, the way that two psychoanalysts are going to [laughs].

Seth: Of course.

Rikki: We talked about what could that mean? What do you need to swallow? What have you swallowed that you—whatever, blah, blah, blah.

Then we go back to sleep, and in the early morning he wakes up again, and wakes me up and says, “Oh my God, I just had this dream that a bee flew into my mouth, and I thought the best thing to do was swallow it. I did, but it stung my esophagus all the way down and I choked to death and died.”

We were marveling at that but decided to leave it at that. So, fast forward to: we come back, and life goes on, and he starts to have more and more pain in his hip and his back, but he’s 70 so it’s no big deal. He goes to massage and acupuncture and chiropractors. Finally, a chiropractor took an x-ray, and this square-looking white thing showed up on his lung and the chiropractor said, “You need to go see about that.”

Rikki: We were telling this story to the women from NPSI that brought us this gift, and they said, “Wow, you should write about that.” So that sparked something for both of us.

I had been writing a lot. When Adrian first got the diagnosis that he had cancer (which was in June), I just started writing a lot. And then he picked that up and he started writing.

We wrote on a site called CaringBridge, which is a website that allows people to let others know how loved ones are doing during an illness or hospital stay. I used it to process—a lot. And Adrian did as well, but also, then after Adrian died, I found writings on his computer about the process, for him, of dying.

So, I actually wrote the book chapter for the conference; the book is named after the conference. The Evolving British Object Relations conference (EBOR) in 2018 was called Body as Psychoanalytic Object. I wrote that paper and presented it at the conference, and the book it’s published in is put together from papers that were presented at that conference.

Seth: Okay. Wow… That’s a wild story.

Rikki: Yeah.

Seth: So, I actually had a chance to look through the chapter, and I have a couple topics I’d like to ask you about. The first question is about fear. Why are we so afraid of death?

Rikki: Well, that’s a great question. Adrian was certainly afraid of death. And actually, one of the things that he came to realize, and that we came to talk about, was just how that fear had manifested throughout his life. Adrian was probably the healthiest person that anybody knew. He’d always been that person that, when he went to the doctor, they were like, “You’re going to live to be in your nineties.” And he worked at it very hard.

I mean, it’s a bit of a joke actually, because it was just like it’s another thing that we’re doing. Not we’re, but him; we’re because I’m in his life. He was always exploring new supplements and trying new doctors that were going to help him find the best diet for his life. He just lived very [health] conscious, and what he said when he was in that 10-month period of dying, was that he thought that he actually might be able to overcome death.

Now of course he didn’t rationally think that, but that some part of him actually [did], and that was how he moved through the world—that if he just did enough of these healthy things, maybe he wouldn’t die. It seemed such a joke. I mean, first of all, I was always going to die before him. That was always going to happen. I’m just fundamentally not as healthy and not as conscious of taking care of myself.

Rikki: When this picture came up of this square, it looked like a pocket protector from the 50’s. We were like: What is that? Then when we went to the oncologist and he said, “Well, actually, this is what is called nonsmoker’s lung cancer, which is much worse than smoker’s lung cancer, because you don’t discover it till it metastasizes. He had no symptoms, he didn’t cough, he didn’t have trouble breathing. It didn’t show up until it had gotten into his bones.

I think right from the beginning I could feel, and we could talk about, that he was terrified. And I was terrified of losing him.

I don’t know if this is true or not, because I haven’t personally been up against death like that, but I would say I’m not afraid of death right now. I would say it doesn’t frighten me. But it was different for Adrian, for whatever reason.

I think that what he could say about it was that he was afraid that you just go into nothingness, and you’re alone, but I guess it must have included for him that you’re conscious enough in some way to know that, so you’re just alone forever… Adrian was very afraid of dying and I was very afraid of losing him. We were both in our own fears, off and on, pretty strongly. I don’t know if that answers your question.

Seth: Well, it resonates with me. For me, the fear of death has been completely colored by the idea, impressed very deeply upon me growing up in the church, of extending my consciousness into infinity. I remember even the idea of heaven was terrifying to me as a kid because the idea of infinity scared me.

Rikki: Right, right. In some way, it’s so weird—I mean, this is just personality difference, but infinity doesn’t scare me, it almost feels like it, this isn’t quite the right way to say it, but it lets me off the hook. In a way, it’s like, I might not get it right now, I might not be all that I can be, but if there is such a thing as infinity, then…

And I don’t know, it’s such a mystery. I mean, it feels so… I don’t feel like I have any idea what is after this realm. So that allows you to let go. I’m not going to know till I know.

Seth: Hmm. As you were saying that, I had the thought that maybe it is the capital C consciousness that has the most to lose, the most to fear.

Rikki: Mm. I think that’s true because that does get lost. I mean, I do think (well, I’m pretty sure) that Adrian is not in the consciousness that he was. First of all, I mean, I can’t communicate with him… Well, it’s such a big thing, right? It’s just so weird. Death is just so weird. I mean, I completely understand why we have such a hard time talking about it. I’ve had a lot of death in my life. Two of my best friends died, one in 1993, and one in 2002. And my parents have died. And when my father died, I think that was when it really hit me how final death really is. That was in 2000. It really hit me because he was a big life force, like, he had a lot of energy, a lot of life energy and—it was gone. And I remember just sort of being like, Wow… What is that? How does that much life, over that long of a time… he was 81 when he died.

It was just gone—at least, gone from my experience, gone from this realm’s experience, and I don’t know, it seems to be so hard to understand. The unknowingness of what happens is one of the things about death that’s so confusing.

Rikki: The other thing that brings up a lot of fear, I think, is the realization that you never meet your potential in this lifetime. I don’t care who you are or what you’ve done. Our potentials are so… They’re unlimited in a way. And there’s something so depressing, in a Melanie Klein depressive position way almost, there’s something so depressing about the limitations of a lifetime. You can’t do it all.

Seth: Yeah. Hmm. That segues well, maybe, into the question of denial. You write about denial in a positive light in the chapter.

Rikki: Yeah. Those wonderful mechanisms of splitting and denial and projection. It was so necessary. The denial was so necessary for us. Because our lives were going on. They were very different—we were going to the doctors a lot, I was changing my schedule a lot, and, of course, Adrian’s.

I mean, I made a decision… [becomes tearful] Sorry, it’s funny how certain things touch you. I never know when this is going to happen. But I really made the decision that I was going to as fully accompany him as I could. I went to every doctor’s appointment with him. We really honestly probably talked about it every day…

Seth: Mmm.

Rikki: We were also working, and seeing our patients, and he was still, here and there, able to continue his regular activities. We were getting together with family, we took some trips, we had some time—in that, it was 10 months from diagnosis to death. And in those 10 months there were some nice trips—he had some remission, he had time when he wasn’t in pain, and we were able to enjoy our regular activities.

You kind of have to be in denial constantly. One of my writings on the Caringbridge site is about this notion that: okay, if we have years, then we can relax into this a little bit. But if we have months, then, what’s important? What needs to happen before he dies— for him, and for me? But you don’t know. I mean, I would say that I didn’t know that death was really imminent until probably two months before he died. Up until that time, it just felt like maybe we have another year, maybe we have another two years.

The doc had told stories about a person that was taking the chemo that Adrian took, that he lived five years. So, Adrian was like, “Okay, we’re going to do five years.” And we didn’t know until it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen.

Seth: And the unknown is so integral to death itself; and in the chapter, you link it to Bion’s O. Could you say something about that?

Rikki: Well, there are so many writings about O; but for me, O feels like the unknowable, but ultimate reality. What is real? And so having to look into this unknown, and ultimately, look into the fact of death, was so unreal, so unreal but up against the ultimate reality.

And it’s real, right? It’s so real. Almost too real, in a way. I think that is related to O; that makes sense to me, as something for all of us, that we can know that place that is so hard to… I mean, it’s sort of this amazingly contradictory place of being so real and present and [yet] so unknowable.

Seth: Wow. Yeah, I see. Not just the unknown, but implied in that is: the real. Something unknown which is nonetheless real, a reality which could completely reframe what we think we know. So, what does “dreaming into death” mean, or how did the dreams prepare… how did they work?

Rikki: What I write about in the chapter, and what we wondered about is, first of all, what was that? Was it that the unconscious was in touch with the body in a way that wasn’t able to be known consciously and was communicating something? Was the unconscious aware on some cellular level that Adrian had cancer and was dying? You know?

I mean, I don’t know. We would talk a lot about [how] the body-mind— which I just don’t think of as separate at all—is so complex. It’s like the way that people say, “Oh, I knew something in my gut,” or “I knew it in my gut before that happened.” Which meant there was a feeling in the body that maybe didn’t have a story, didn’t have a narrative, but it was like, “Ooh, something is coming.” I mean, that’s not quite a dream, but it is kind of a dream. So, is that what came up in Adrian’s night dreams?

Rikki: And then I think “dreaming into death” was very much what we were also trying to do when we could. First of all, I think that there’s two things: there’s dying and then there’s death, and they’re not the same. I mean, dying is the process, and death is what happens.

So maybe it would’ve been a better chapter title to say “dreaming into dying,” because that’s really probably what we did more of. We just dreamt into what it was to be together and what was important for us to do, for us to say to each other.

We read this book by Stephen Levine, called “A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as if It Were Your Last.” He tried to live a year of his life as if it was his last. And then he wrote about that. And we read that out loud to each other, and we went through some of the practices that he recommended in the book. And we wrote, and we would read each other what we wrote, which is partly where the chapter comes out of, and we really tried to be in the experience as much as we could. And a lot of that is a dreaming kind of experience.

Seth: Well, it’s very inspiring, and my mind’s going in a lot of different directions… Just thinking about dreams in general and our relationship with death, regardless of how far away we think that might be.

Rikki: Yeah. I say this in the chapter, but death was part of our life together. We were together for 28 and a half years, so, that’s a pretty long time. The man that introduced us was my best friend—his name was Steven Schwartz, very fascinating guy, a psychological, spiritual leader, very young, very smart. But Steven was the first person I knew that died, and we were very involved during his death. We took care of him, along with his wife, and others, but we took care of him the last two weeks of his life, and that was an amazing experience, back in 1993.

And then, not long after that, we went to India together, Adrian and I, for six months. And one of the things we did in India was we read out loud from this book called The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, in which Sogyal Rinpoche talks about how important it is to bring death into your life regularly, to talk about it, think about it, be aware of all the deaths that happen regularly and make that very conscious.

And his encouragement, because he’s a Tibetan Buddhist, is that what that means is when you actually die, you won’t have to jump into the first available next life. Because if you have learned to bring death into your life, and have learned to tolerate it, you can be more choiceful about your reincarnation. That’s his premise. So, I don’t know, but I liked the idea, because it’s maybe one of two things that we all share. We’re born and we die. And it’s such a shared uncertainty, unknown.

Rikki: Anyway, so Adrian and I talked about and worked with death a lot. I have always felt that it was important, but going through this intense experience with my husband, I just feel even more like it’s just… so helpful, it was so helpful to me—not that it didn’t suck, because death sucks—but it was so much, I don’t know if easier is the right word, it was so much richer because I’d gone through so much with him, about it, before he died. That was really great.

Seth: Well, thank you. I think you are giving a gift to the community, to help us to live with death.

Rikki: Well, thanks. I hope in some way that that would be true, because it does feel so important to me. Thanks for asking me to talk about it.

Seth: Thank you very much.

“It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.”

– D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality

Categories: Feature InterviewPublished On: January 1st, 2022Tags: