Legacy of Grief

The power of syntax, rage, and intergenerational trauma

Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash

In Becoming Myself, Irvin D. Yalom recalls a late night when he was fourteen: his father had a painful heart attack, and he waited with his mother for the doctor to arrive, since they still made house-calls in those days. When his mother was frantic with distress, he writes, she reverted to “primitive thinking,” needing to find someone to blame. “You killed him, you killed him!” she let the boy know as he cowered from her onslaught, her “volcanic rage” raining down on him .

His father recovered and lived another twenty-three years. I think about my father and his mother. I think about immigrant ancestors, syntax, and rage.

My father told me his mother hated him. From what I had seen, Farmor, his mother, became giddy with pleasure when he telephoned her, which was almost never. Her home, two-thousand miles away in the American Midwest, was a shrine to her two boys, alongside her devotion to the King of Sweden. Farmor’s English was passable, but she read only the Swedish newspapers and Swedish books, and I suspect Uncle Oscar picked out the English language greeting cards she sent her grandchildren. Words were sometimes inadvertently reversed or rearranged when she spoke, well over sixty years after her 1914 arrival at Ellis Island.

In You Will Never Be NormalI relate my father’s conversation with me. “It’s the God’s honest truth, I’m telling you,” my dad insisted. “My brother Oscar must have been about one year old and he started choking on some food, he turned blue one day, and my mother, she started screaming and running around yelling ‘Leopold, Leopold, do something!’ I was seven years old and she scared me, I didn’t know what to do. Then she picked him up and he started coughing and he spit the food out and started crying. My mother looked at me with such hatred, then, as she held Oscar to her. She said, ‘Why couldn’t you be the one to choke?’ and I knew she hated me from that day on, for the rest of my life.”

I could see his rage and the deep sorrow on his face as Dad finished his story and gulped another drink. He never spoke to his mother about that incident, about what she said when she was terrified. He told me he knew what he knew, that she hated him. 

Granted, these terrified women reverted to blame, but were they actually, unwittingly, blaming themselves? No one ever challenged them, no one ever asked Did you really mean to say that?

Was it syntax? Did she mix up you and I? Was Farmor speaking to Leopold in Swedish? Was it my dad who mixed up the syntax? In school, he was held back and repeated kindergarten in order to learn English; he struggled with two languages as a seven-year-old first-grader.

In the 1890’s, when Farmor was a little girl living in Sweden, she was nearly two years old when her newborn baby brother died, and she was one year older when the next baby, a sister, died. Farmor then lost her only friend and playmate, her five year-old brother, when she was four years old, and her mother must have been even more inaccessible and remote in her grief: three deaths in three years. It is no stretch to imagine that Farmor re-enacted what she witnessed as a young and lonely child, probably unconsciously, and in deep pain: It should have been her.

When my mother was dying in the hospital in northern California and my father refused to visit her, we children were constantly with her. My sister had medical power of attorney, consulting with me as the family RN. When a morphine drip was started to help with my mother’s suffering, she no longer cried out incessantly in pain. When she cried out now, it was for Leo, her husband. “Where is Leo?” Instead of “Help me, help me,” it was now “Leo, Leo, where is Leo?”

I phoned my father from the hospital cafeteria to tell him that Mom was on continuous morphine for pain, that she was asking for him, and we had family members to drive him the ten miles to the hospital to see her.

“She was crying day and night with her pain and nothing was helping, Dad, that’s why they started the morphine drip.”

“You’re killing her, she doesn’t need morphine. You’re killing her, Catherine,” he said loud and clear. I felt like he’d whacked me in the head. From behind. What the hell?

“You’re killing her, Catherine. You’re killing Momma.”

He repeated this accusation for six years, up to the time of his own death, even though we had many calmer conversations about how morphine drips work on pain. Did he really believe I would kill my mother? Or that I had an impossible influence at their hospital? Or was he stuck in his own stubbornness after he’d uttered the words in the first flush of his terror and rage that she was really going to die? I never asked if my truth-telling seemed lethal to him. 

These are very distinct scenarios; different motivations for assigning blame in moments of fear and rage, complicated by histories of enduring, unacknowledged grief. 

However it works — these variations of primitive thinking, syntax, rage, and the stamp of pain this emotional abuse leaves on generations of children — a particular echo catches my attention throughout all these times and locations: It should have been me.

Declining Bees and Revisiting Home

I found this poem and photo some time ago and it resurfaced today, a memory from the midwestern home where I grew up. Readers of my blog and those who know me may have even seen a version of this a number of years back. 

Today, as publication edges nearer, I recall more clearly the images that I re-encounter when I answer interview questions of my own making and discuss matters of revisiting trauma, of wounded healers, of life today for so many survivors. 

Seemingly unrelated topics like the declining bee population across the globe come to my mind because I’m reading Helen Jukes’ amazing book, A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings, and her admonition that saving bees isn’t done by adding and caring for more bee hives. It’s done by caring for the world the bees depend on—the wildflower pastures, the meadows and grasslands and prairies and woodlands that are being lost to corporate agriculture and “urban sprawl.”  Our heartlessness. Our habitat fragmentation.

My whole self fragmented in my early life. There are so many others like me. Fixing the house is only the beginning of fixing the world that supports us.

Revisiting Home After Fifty Years

The porch is gone, and the sloping screen
door. The peeling clapboards look like
siding and the roof is new. Insects flew
right in the torn screen door. Even the cat
found entry. It was a broken place. Muffled

sounds from the house faded away under
the porch. It was quiet. In my refuge, 
a child's cave, the dirt seemed sifted, soft
as talcum, as a kiss. Hazy particles swam

unfiltered through shadows in dusty clouds
and held me. The porch is gone, also the screen 
and the house no longer cries for paint. May it
please be better in this new unbroken place.

Maybe It’s Afib

Late night thoughts in COVID lockdown

Sometimes my dreams are regular dreams, rhythmic and steady. Sometimes in the night, my hand cups my left breast and I startle awake at the galloping pace that rattles my fingertips, and whatever I’ve been dreaming vanishes. It’s happened so much that I don’t even get up. I simply slow my breathing. I count to six as I inhale and I count to six or eight on exhale. Gradually, I feel my heart rate slow. My breast becomes a metronome again until its flutter is less and less palpable. I hope I don’t die tonight.

The news media has been full of death counts since March. It’s so inescapable that I signed a document stating to not hospitalize me for ARDS of COVID-19, although they were not treating the coagulation complications of COVID at that time, and now they are. So maybe I would choose differently today. I almost always choose life. So many people lament dying alone in these days that it’s a familiar litany, a global sorrow that COVID patients in most cases die in isolation from those who love them. I’ve written of this myself, because of how most people feel. But I must admit I wouldn’t mind dying alone. I think if I had my faculties, being alone might help me pay attention to the business of dying. Still, I hope I don’t die tonight.

It occurs to me that by the time my book is released, more relatives may have died. I didn’t think of this at all until Aunt Evelyn died in March, and now I learn that Uncle Oscar is in hospice. They are the last remaining close attachments to my parents. They always knew my dad was a tyrant and, without really knowing how it was for us, they wanted to believe it wasn’t so heinous. It would not have been a great revelation to learn what’s in my book, but it might have been painful for them. It is a clear grace to be spared that distress.

We go through our Advance Directives and I see that we are now asked to specify what “quality of life” means to us. I think of Jean-Dominique Bauby and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Just find one meaningful thing, I think, even if you’re locked-in. So many of the living today struggle to find meaning in lockdown, a lesser imprisonment, yet we flit from project to project, recipe to recipe, Zoom to Zoom. Quality of life must be more than freedom from breathing machines, the ability to recognize family and friends, to think well enough to make everyday decisions, to live without severe pain. We contemplate our death and we cling to life.

I hope I don’t die tonight.

Enchanted

It’s a small thing, but I do it. I share my delight in watching a travelogue that slightly embarrasses me, that I spend any time rapt by the English canal countryside from a narrowboat, narrated by a wholly unfamiliar middle aged traveler with a life perspective simplified down to the bare necessities of maneuvering the locks, mapping his canal progress, planning his supplies, the canal itself, the sound of the engine chugging steadily as a heartbeat; the livestock, the factories, the ancient bridges, the history, the weather, the stars overhead. Thoreau on the inland waterways of Great Britain and Wales. 

“It’s a stupid thing,” I say. “I don’t believe I’m so addicted to this narrowboat show, who would have thought it would bring me such joy?” I watch the face of my friend, his smile, his raised eyebrows. What’s a narrowboat? I tell him it’s a very long, very narrow boat dating back to the Industrial Revolution, designed for water transport of goods. I can’t explain why vicariously joining a YouTube celebrity I’d never be friends with on his recreational narrowboat satisfies a hole in my soul. I’m tongue-tied and stumped. 

“Time is but the stream I go fishing in,” Thoreau writes in Walden. “I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.” Narrowboats today are not slaves of time. Narrowboat travel at four miles per hour feels nearly timeless, an unending moment, attentive. When I imagine myself on the narrowboat, I can choose, like Thoreau, to participate in the flow of time however I wish. In Walking he writes, “Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present.” 

I am mindful that its attraction, and my delight, remain enigmatic. 

Survival

If there is one thing I know for sure about trauma and survival is that if we put two brains together and put them under a scan, the traumatized brain would be lit up and on fire right now. 
Survival skills are kicking in. You can sure tell who has been through some stuff by the way they are reacting or not reacting to this trauma. We never know what others are dealing with. We all handle stress and trauma differently. What ever your feeling it’s ok. For many it’s grief. The loss of something familiar. For trauma survivors you may find yourself tapping into your early childhood survival skills. Food deprivation, need to self sooth. Observing this and being gentle with yourself is key. How ever you see the world right now, know that you are loved. You are not alone and if your brain is on fire due to this trauma response be kind to yourself. There is a whole tribe of people who get you.

(found among anonymous pandemic postings)

Kol Nidre as Connection

Kol Nidre at the Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles is unique from the very beginning. Inmates from different sections of the same security level are not allowed to mix, even for religious services, except when they are. So it’s unknown if they’ll need separate back-to-back services in this classroom until the last minute. 

The general floor has a large chapel, but this floor has only a classroom for Kol Nidre. We volunteers move chairs and tables until we have a semi-circle of chairs. The volunteer Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Avivah Erlick, will improvise the rest of the absent supplies, and leave us yearning for more of her stunning voice. The first young man to enter tells us how much he longs for services, how long it’s been. Since we’re waiting for others, we ask him what he wants Jewishly in MCJ, and he tells us he wants a Jewish calendar—can he get a calendar?—services, shabbat services at least once a month, he wants to celebrate holidays, and he’d love a study group. Talmud seems impossible, but it is discussed—maybe pages can be xeroxed one at a time. 

He wants to be Jewish where he lives. Men’s Central Jail.

Unsaid: There is no funding. And who are going to be the Jewish volunteers? The Greater Los Angeles Jewish community does not support any Jewish chaplaincy or other Jewish prisoner services in LA county since Federation cut it loose. 

https://jewishjournal.com/news/los_angeles/232200/chaplaincy-program-jewish-inmates-faces-uncertain-future/

Other inmates arrive. A newcomer has bought a siddur for the young man who must leave, one prisoner buying a siddur for another. We are on the LGBTQ floor with our very diverse incarcerated Jews. They beam to see us, that Rabbi Avivah has other volunteers with her, and that we want to be here. It is striking that when we pray refuah shlema for healing, a prisoner in a coma is named for Mi Sheberach. 

It’s appropriate to say that most congregations and Jewish communities emphasize personal meaning, reflection, and forgiveness during yom kippur. We’re accustomed to this and we teach young children about “I’m sorry,” and kindness, at this holiday.

But here! Kol Nidre itself has new substance here. “We hold it lawful to pray with transgressors.” We all pray these words together. Our emphasis is on how we all together have fallen short, not kept our promises to ourselves, maybe not even to others, and here we are—all together in this. We look around the room, we hear the sounds from the jail corridor, (we are not allowed to close the classroom door,) and we see only human beings, trying to live. Like us. 

We are all transgressors. In a prison tonight. Feeling our connection.

Rabbi Avivah’s shofar TEKIAH GEDOLAH echoes through the classroom and out into the corridors, sweet and loud. Throughout the jail. We are awed by incarcerated Jews joyfully singing Oseh Shalom, boisterously, happily, gratefully, before we say good-bye.

On Memory

After Appelfeld, ז״ל

The [trauma] “was etched inside my body, but not in my memory.

“In my writing I wasn’t imagining but drawing out, from the depths of my being, the feelings and impressions I had absorbed because of my lack of awareness.”

(THE STORY OF A LIFE, Aharon Appelfeld, Schocken Books, 2004)

Children’s memories are fundamentally different than those of adults…

THE APOLOGY, a review

THE APOLOGY

Eve Ensler

Of course it’s triggering, but just know this and read however you need to, maybe in small bites, maybe between walks at the ocean, or talks with your therapist, but consider the nature of what it means to formulate an apology from the abuser who never would do that in real life. My father refused. Maybe yours also refused…wouldn’t even have the conversation. 

Considering what it would mean; knowing my father refused, I peeked in Eve Ensler’s book, The Apology. Then I peeked again. And again. There are differences, to be sure, in her story, her father’s story, and mine, and yet some of her words have also been written by me, said by me; and I can’t be the only other one out here. 

I still need to re-read what I may have skimmed. Soaking up her father’s persona was more painful and more extended than I could tolerate on first reading. Ensler goes deeply into her father’s psychological makeup, where I simply unearthed the facts of my father’s childhood, not so much his deep emptiness. His chronic depression and his alcoholism were just genetic traits as far as I was concerned, as far as I was willing to look. Naturally, there was more to it. 

The large glaring truth of never having known unconditional love, of being so woefully ignorant of how to accept his little girl’s open, total trust—this was Dad. He betrayed that trust earlier than Eve’s father, when I was three, more when I was four, until the age of seven. I was his ‘special girl.’ He was always clear about the ‘special.’

The gift for me in Ensler’s work is to finally know I was not to blame for being ‘special.’ After nearly twenty years of therapy and the integration of highly protective dissociative alters that were formed in response to that childhood trauma, this is the first time I clearly see I was not to blame—that it was beyond my father’s capability to cope with the pure innocence of my child’s freely offered unconditional adoration and total trust. 

When my dad died, I said that I knew what my father had taken from me—trust in others and belief in myself. My developing self had been destroyed when I split into separate parts to survive. I was still wary of my fragments, only beginning to realize they were the best of me, that I had lived my whole life with no knowledge of the purest, truest parts of myself. My father took that from me. I was a different person because of him. I might not have run away from home at sixteen, my life trajectory might have been more promising—he had broken me and I was only then putting the pieces of my brittle self back together. I might have known I was bright, not stupid; capable, not inept; strong, not weak; lovable, not hopelessly cold and cut-off from warmth. The word “birthright” entered my mind, and I let it die there. Our friends made shiva calls to my home, and I let them think I was crying for my father’s death. Only I knew differently and I couldn’t say my shame out loud. There was a whole life I didn’t have because of my father, a whole person I didn’t become because of his secret touching, a life stolen away. 

In contrast, the end of Ensler’s The Apology is genius. His litany of confessions reads like the chest thumping Al Chets we confess on Yom Kippur, standing in stark distinction to my own accusations of my father:

  • What kind of destruction have I wrought? I have lied and lied to myself and to you. 
  • I cursed your future of love. At five I took your body. You didn’t give it to me.
  • I contaminated your sweetness. 
  • I ripped the protective golden gates from your garden. 
  • I betrayed your trust. 
  • I rearranged your sexual chemistry and the basis of your desire. 
  • Wrongness and excitement were forever fused together. 
  • I made my stain. I left my stinking mark. 
  • By invading and overwhelming your body I killed your yearning so early. 
  • You did not give me permission. There was no consent. 
  • You did not seduce me with your crinoline petticoats. You were simply being an adorable child…
  • I robbed you of agency over your body. 
  • You didn’t make any decisions. You didn’t say yes. You had no sovereignty. 
  • I exploited and abused you. 
  • I took your body. It was no longer yours. I rendered you passive…
  • I forced you out of your body, and because you were dislocated and numb, you were unable to protect yourself. 
  • I compromised your safety and ability to defend yourself…
  • I exploited your adoration…
  • I made intimacy claustrophobic…
  • I stole your innocence…

Her entire last page, his paragraphs of sorrow, drop me to the ground. 

Would it be so.

Thank you, Eve.

(THE APOLOGY        EVE ENSLER            Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc. 2019)

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, a review

TRAUMA-SENSITIVE MINDFULNESS:

Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing                                               DAVID A. TRELEAVEN

Thank you for writing this, David.

So few people speak of this—almost no one—how mindfulness meditation can go awry for some of us and what to do when a previously stable, nourishing practice requires regulation.

PTSD with dissociative aspects plunged me into a ten week kundalini wormhole during mindfulness meditation in 2002, and I can attest to the thoroughness and care of David Treleaven’s new book, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness.

“Mindfulness is a process of enhanced self-regulation.” Brilliant.

What’s amazing about Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness is how recognizable all its referenced books, studies, and citations are, (that I had to find for myself,) and how much comes up for me as I remember finding and reading them, and the conferences I attended to meet the authors and researchers—and where I was in my journey then. Having Pat Ogden explain the “window of tolerance” in person with all her remarks and the Q&A is ingrained.

It is gratifying as well to find the interventions that my therapist and I used laid out in this book, for others to use, organized.

I appreciate the design of Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness. I especially like the configuration of the Modifications. Another of the book’s strengths is its emphasis on diverse cultures and backgrounds and larger systems of oppression. 

This is not a science book and I don’t object to David’s simplification of the neuroscience. I think the book’s References and Endnotes provide clarity. I would only add a few comments specific to the book:

  1. I found reference to Allan Schore’s work notably absent in David’s book, where Allan’s Affect Regulation books were essential for my understanding of implicit vs. explicit memory, and gave me hope that early impaired attachment could be repaired.
  2. I took exception to the flashback-halting protocol, although I may mean “flashback” in an exclusively experiential way, which would make a difference, i.e., my Parts never remembered, they only experienced. They invariably became annoyed when interrupted by the kind of questions in the protocol, and then everything would stop.
  3. It seems that R. C. Schwartz’s Parts in the IFS model are in fact identical to my Parts in the DID model, not that it matters. It seems to me in retrospect that my therapist was doing family systems therapy at the end when my Parts all talked to him, before integration.

Eighteen years on, my mindfulness practice continues strong.

(TRAUMA-SENSITIVE MINDFULNESS: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing,                 DAVID A. TRELEAVEN. W.W. Norton & Company, 2018)

Canada Geese, for my sister

Annie Jackson 1950—2017

Then I notice the Canada Geese are marching directly toward me…

Mary Oliver says in “Wild Geese”:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things
.