Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Inherited Grief


We are taught how to grieve by the legacy carried in our families, or, more often, we are taught how to cover death up. This presented a problem when my wife Evelyn died.

I knew that one side of my family was pushed out of Scotland because of the Clearances, when rich owners forced the working class out of their homes and off the land in order to increase their profits. My family settled in Ireland for a time, and then came with boatloads of others to America. I knew that the other side of the family fled Germany in the late 1800s when Bismarck was conscripting more males for another of his wars, began life in a new country, and built a farm on the Wisconsin prairie.

Beyond this, few of my ancestors’ stories were passed down through the generations, so I didn’t know the hardships they suffered, how they grieved the deaths of family members, or how they struggled to deal with the loss of country and home. I suspected that some of my foremothers died in childbirth. I suspected that some of my forefathers died in wars or from farming accidents. When my grandparents were growing up, it was common for half of the children born to never reach adulthood, yet I never heard them speak of the death of their siblings. I tried to imagine what their lives were like by reading the accounts of other families in similar situations, but it felt like I was grieving with borrowed ghosts.

In an off-hand moment years ago, my dad mentioned that mom had a miscarriage, but I don’t remember either of them saying they were torn up by this. They were matter of fact — “It happens.” One day when we were sorting through old boxes, we found photos of mom’s sister who died in her early 20s. I could see sorrow in mom’s eyes for someone dear to her who died too young, but she didn’t say anything. What did my parents do with their grief?

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As far as I was aware, we weren’t hiding any horrible secrets or tragedies, nothing like friends who discovered that their elderly Jewish parents or grandparents went through the death camps of the Holocaust, and were so traumatized by the degradation and desecration, and feeling guilty for having survived when so many did not, that they never spoke about it, and endured every death since then with unexplained resignation.

A daughter of Holocaust survivors, Elizabeth Rosner writes about her search to understand their grief and its continuing impact on her family. In her insightful and far-reaching book, Elizabeth discovers that she shared this inherited trauma with many others in the second and third generations. Research in epigenetics is showing that prolonged stress and trauma cause chemical reactions in the body that can change the DNA that is passed on to offspring. Then, when the offspring experience trauma, they react in ways that they can’t explain. One of her friends said that she could recognize survivors “by way of a certain haunted look, a sadness in their eyes.”

Elizabeth says it’s crucial that survivors and their offspring continue to tell their stories of oppression and survival because humanity has a way of forgetting its atrocities and then creating new ones. Besides the Holocaust, there were the genocides that went on in Cambodia, Rwanda and Syria, Americans forget that we didn’t believe the early reports of the death camps and turned away boatloads of Jewish refugees during World War II, sending them back to their deaths. We forget that we forced 120,000 Japanese Americans out of their homes and into internment camps in places like Heart Mountain, Wyoming and Manzanar, California. We forget that we fire bombed civilian populations in Dresden and Chemnitz, and atomic bombed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their descendants are still dealing with the aftermath of our actions.

Rosner notes that the German people continue to own up to their complicity in the Holocaust and preserve places like Auschwitz because they do not want to forget and repeat it. She speaks of the need for us to remember our mass shootings, our lynchings, and suggests setting up memorials in these places where the public can grieve those who died.

Elizabeth Rosner, Survivor CafĂ©: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory

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While I wasn’t aware of carrying any ancestral burdens of grief, I was also without the anchors that held my ancestors together during their struggles. Without their hard-learned wisdom to guide me through the dark months, I drifted in my search and tried to grieve in ways that seemed right. I wanted to reclaim my ancestors’ Celtic traditions and keen on a storm-ravaged moor. I wanted to wash the body of my beloved, and hold a wake with crying, drinking, and laughter as we shared our stories of her.

I had to re-imagine grief in order to cope and make my way through. What I did in the beginning was light candles each night and speak my beloved’s name to the darkness. I pulled her blanket around and felt her warmth. I made an altar and placed on it her photo, her ashes, and several possessions that were important to her because I did not want to forget.

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What grief have you inherited?

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