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A necessary mourning

Posted by Claudia M Gold  July 8, 2012 11:36 AM

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I heard the phrase, "I don't want to live in the past" three times last week. The first was from Dr.Ruth Westheimer, famous sex therapist and Holocaust survivor. Her interviewer pointed out the inconsistency of that statement and the fact that she was in town to see a play about the story of her life. The second was a mother who wept in my office as she spoke of her troubles dealing with her young daughter's behavior. She recognized how her own issues got in the way, but wished to "live life forward."  The third was from my father.  We are working together to find a way to tell his remarkable story of his life in Nazi Germany, his escape to America, and his subsequent rescue of his parents from Theresienstadt when he returned as a soldier with the US army. His ambivalence is powerful-one day he will be eager to tell more stories about his life, and the next day he will shut it down. 

I find myself thinking-do these stories, often associated with very difficult and painful memories- need to be told? Virtually every person who hears my father's story says it must be told. But why?

I think there are two answers. The first is about history. History is essentially about telling stories from the past. Our hope is to make sense of things and so to better understand the present and future. But it may be difficult for the individual person who experienced the trauma directly to carry this burden. Perhaps history needs to be written by those who can study it from a distance.

The second answer is more personal.   It is about the hold that unprocessed grief can have on an individual, and on subsequent generations. When speaking with a friend about how little I knew about my father's life until very recently, she said, "Can you imagine how much energy it takes to hold all of that in?"

When loss on the magnitude of the Holocaust has occurred, it is very difficult to wrap one's mind around the effect of unprocessed mourning. In my work with parents and young children, however, its effect can be immediate and vivid. Here is an example from my pediatric practice.

Emily brought her son Michael to see me when he was 3 and 1/2 months old. He had been born one month premature, but it was clear from a first glance that he was doing well. I remember noticing that his mother was so close, physically close. She hovered over his carriage, reluctant to let me pick him up. She stood inches from him while I examined him.

He was robust little boy who gave a big smile as he intently followed his mother's face. Emily felt he was doing well. So well, in fact, that she was attributing qualities to him for which he seemed to young. "It's good for him to comfort himself, right? I should let him cry, right?" She seemed very anxious.

About a year earlier, Emily had lost a baby, Christopher she called him, in her ninth month of pregnancy, when she was in a car accident. She conceived again almost immediately. And here was this miracle baby. I watched Michael sleeping in his blue jumper. He seemed so small and vulnerable. 

"He's doing great," I said. Emily continued to wear that uncertain look as I tried to reassure her. She asked about sleep. "Is it OK if he is still in our bed? Is it good for bonding?" she asked. I was puzzled by this question and paused, asking her to tell me what she meant.

"Is he bonded to me?" she asked. I started to attempt an answer when she interrupted me. "Can you bond in utero? I mean I bonded to Christopher, but he died. I didn't let myself bond to Michael when I was carrying him."

I felt a tingling in my arms and a clutching in my chest. Tears came to my eyes as I watched them run freely down her cheeks. We sat this way for a while, living in the unbearable pain of her loss.

With Emily I wondered aloud if getting pregnant so quickly had prevented her from doing the difficult work of grieving the loss of her first child. She said to me, "I feel like I can't give all of myself to Michael. I have to hold back to protect myself." 

At that visit with me, perhaps fortified by our moment of connection, of true empathy, she found the courage to face this task of grieving. She recognized it was critically important not only for herself, but for her relationship with her infant son.

 Sometimes there is urgency to telling these stories, to protect the next generation from the effects of unprocessed grief by enabling parents to be fully emotionally present with their children. In the case of war or massive social trauma, the work of mourning may need to be done generations later, when people are safe and comfortable and do not fear for their lives.

The French psychoanalysts I refer to in my previous post on this subject make the distinction between "big history," and individual family history, noting that the second can sometimes be a reverberation of the first. Psychologist Gerard Fromm, in his book Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma Across Generations, elaborates on this notion through case histories from his work at the Austen Riggs Center.

A friend who knew I was writing about this subject recommended that I watch the first scene of the film Angels in America. It is the funeral of an elderly Jewish woman. The old rabbi looks out at his audience of adult children and grandchildren and, speaking of this woman's life, hardship and coming to America, says, "that ocean crossing lives in you." When they are spoke of or not, these stories live in subsequent generations, and demand to be told.

Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Claudia M. Gold, M.D. is a pediatrician and author of Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child's More »


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