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Death Is Psychologist's Way of Life : Therapist Works With AIDS Patients and Their Families

November 28, 1986|SANDRA BOODMAN | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Judy Pollatsek spends her life dealing with other people's pain. She is a new kind of therapist, a psychologist whose practice is devoted exclusively to "D and D" as she calls it: death and dying.

Since 1979 she has worked for the St. Francis Center, a nationally known non-sectarian organization in that counsels the dying and the grieving. Until recently, Pollatsek's patients were mostly cancer victims and their families. Now many of her patients have acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS. Since 1983, 20 of her patients have died.

For as long as they are physically able, Pollatsek's patients come to her comfortably homey office at the center, in a yellow frame house on a quiet side street near Sibley Hospital. When they are bedridden or hospitalized, Pollatsek visits them.

During therapy sessions she sits in a flowered overstuffed chair, her legs tucked under one hip. A well-thumbed leather personal organizer rests next to a large glass ashtray full of cigarette butts on her wooden desk. Patients sit opposite her on a low-slung sofa, a Kleenex box within easy reach.

Pollatsek resembles Liza Minnelli with her throaty voice, diminutive frame, earthy irreverence and cap of close-cropped black hair. She has a mobile, expressive face, not the impassive countenance of a traditional psychiatrist, and laughs easily.

She is a married, 50-year-old, grandmother who counsels dying homosexuals her son's age and is sometimes affectionately called the "Death Lady." Here is her account:

What I learned from doing therapy with the dying and grieving is that what you cannot do is take away somebody's coping mechanism, however aberrant. If someone is depressed, you don't try and talk them out of it, which is what most other people do. What works is acknowledging their depression and saying, "I'd be depressed, too," or giving somebody a hug.

I don't find it depressing, generally, because it's such a rare opportunity to be with people when they are at their most real. The interactions I have with people who are dying are at such a gut level that it's almost a gift. But the inexorable downhill course makes me sad, always makes me feel as if I failed.

All therapy is about loss. I was always in therapy. It was what we did in our family--everybody went to therapy. My mother's solution to everything was: See a therapist.

Father, Mother and Stepfather

My real father was a manufacturer, but I really had two fathers. I was born in Pittsburgh, but my parents divorced when I was 3. My mother ran away with my stepfather, is what I gather, and my father said, "She's staying," so I lived with him for three years while she was in New York. No one ever explained it to me. She just disappeared.

When I was 6, he decided I needed my mother, so I was sent to New York. It was real confusing to me, the divided loyalty part, the going back and forth part. I had a real sense of being abandoned by both parents. For years, I'm told, when my mother went out for the evening, I would check her closet to see if she had taken all her clothes.

My mother married my stepfather when I was 8. I was really bitter about it. I liked him a lot. He was more fun than my father, but I loved my father, and I had these secret fantasies that my parents would get back together.

My stepfather was a musician. He played double bass with the NBC Orchestra and Toscanini. My mother was a pianist. I went to hear Toscanini every Sunday and there were labor-union benefits where Josh White or Paul Robeson would sing.

We lived on the Grand Concourse and later in the deepest Bronx, the most ethnic part. I was an only child and my stepfather taught me how to do really important things. He would meet me every day after school. One day we would go to second-hand book stores, another day we would go to the park and talk to the old men who played chess and boccie ball. Some days we would hit all the delicatessens on a different block and stand outside and smell, and we would rate the delicatessen by the smell. A "10" delicatessen had a barrel full of chocolate Malomars with nuts in them and herring in a barrel and tomatoes in a barrel.

The Move to Los Angeles

In 1946, when I was 10, my mother's parents moved to Los Angeles and everybody followed. By that time my grandparents were very wealthy. They bought a big house in Beverly Hills, a mansion really, right off the Sunset Strip.

Sometime in the early '50s, my stepfather was an unfriendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. I remember that was a time when we were ducking subpoenas and hiding out a lot of people in our house who were also ducking subpoenas. Eventually he was called to testify. He was blacklisted for years; all of our friends were. I don't know if he was a (Communist) Party member, but he was certainly very left wing.

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