“We’re all ghosts. We all carry, inside us, people who came before us.” ―
I am a career therapist who has served clients immersed in loss, challenge and trauma, for four decades. It is an honor to be present and create a safe sacred container (and yes, a therapist’s office can feel like a temple or ashram) as they ride a roller coaster range of emotions. Anger shares space with denial, fear, joy, doubt, acceptance, hope and resolution. Some of their terror-inducing histories include watching someone die suddenly, seeing a family member OD and reviving them, experiencing physical and sexual abuse, walking in after a suicide, surviving a motor vehicle accident while the others in the car don’t, fighting wars and then inner battles, both of which left them scarred.
Potential pitfalls of my field include compassion fatigue and burnout. Another risk is vicarious traumatization, which can happen when you spend so much time hearing about violence, abuse, neglect and suicidality that you begin to feel affected by these traumas yourself.
When I sit with my clients I am often amazed at how readily some bounce back and others succumb to their circumstances. Call it hardiness or resilience, something keeps them grounded and centered when life hits them like a tidal wave. I compare (not always a good thing) myself to them and my life events to theirs and fall into what I call, ‘it could be worse,’ minimizing. I learned from a master as my father would often say, “If that’s the worst thing that ever happens to you, you’ll be okay.” As a result, I would often repress my own grief, since I have the tools and willingness to use them, so what do I have to complain about?
It has cost me dearly to prevent myself from being fully human and grieving my losses of family, friends, jobs, home, money, and health.
The concept of epigenetics plays a role in how we process trauma. It is the idea that people can carry the impact of events that didn’t happen to them directly, in their DNA, from many generations back. That is one reason why children of Holocaust survivors may carry guilt since they imagine that nothing that happens to them could ever match what happened to their parents. They may also unconsciously experience fear of being seen since hiding may have kept their family members alive. It is both nature and nurture at work.
My paternal grandparents were Russian Jewish immigrants who fled the pogrom and came to America in search of a new life that they hoped would be free of anti-Semitism and provide opportunity in this land reputed to have streets paved with gold. They crossed the ocean with likely thousands of others on the rocking ship braving storms at sea, in uncertainty about what might really await them. My grandmother Rebecca was 16. I don’t know how old my grandfather Jacob was when he arrived with his family. Theirs was an arranged marriage. Together they raised four children in financial poverty but rich in love.
My maternal grandparents, Henrietta and Edward were born in America, but their parents hailed from Russia as well. I believe that England was a stop along the way for my great grandparents.
On March 27, 2019, my mother would have turned 95. In her honor, I wrote an article about her and our enduring relationship, now nearly nine years after her death. In it, I mentioned that she graduated from Olney High School (class of 1942) in Philadelphia. Someone from her school saw it and asked to reprint it on their alumni page on Facebook. Gratefully, I thanked him. He then sent me my mother’s yearbook picture. It was of a young woman with a bit of a Mona Lisa smile. Her eyes hadn’t changed over the years, but I detected a sense of sadness. The same year that she turned 18, she lost her father Edward (a.k.a Abraham) for whom I was named, to Leukemia if memory serves. In a heartbeat, she became an adult, partly responsible for supporting my grandmother and herself. I’m not sure if my grandfather had life insurance, but somehow they were able to manage and keep themselves afloat. She and my grandmother lived together until her death after my fourth birthday. When my parents got married, my dad moved into their house and when we traversed the river to New Jersey, my grandmother came with us. She took on the role of the third parent for my sister and me. When she died, I know my mother grieved but my child mind didn’t see it. She kept on keepin’ on, doing what she always had done, although I could tell by the way she talked about her that she missed her fiercely.
My father lost his dad, somewhere between the time my parents were married and I was born two years later since he was at their wedding. My sister Jan was named for him. By the time, my parents were 37, only my paternal grandmother remained. She passed when I was 13 or 14 which I recall because she was buried in the beautiful brocade dress she had worn for my Bat Mitzvah. It was the only time I remember seeing her bedecked in anything other than a house dress or a black jumper.
Another tragedy that befell my father was the death of his beloved grandmother Goldie who was a tiny woman who he called Little Bubbe and would carry her around. One day, he found her at the bottom of the basement steps in her home where she had fallen. Her neck was broken, and she held a quarter in her hand. He never spoke to me of the impact on his life, but I can only imagine what he was feeling when he discovered her body. How had he integrated it into his consciousness? He kept the quarter and wore it on a chain around his neck to hold her with him. When he died in 2008, my sister asked for the necklace and is now passing it on to her son.
I am wondering about whether becoming a therapist goes deeper than merely being curious about what makes people tick and enjoying being a privileged listener. Could it be that it really is in my blood as a way of dealing with life losses that I find it difficult to accept? As much as I say I am at ease with death and tend to compartmentalize so I can learn to live without loved ones by my side, I sometimes tumble into deep grief from which I occasionally feel I will not emerge without leaving a piece of my heart with those who set the stage for me to become the person that I am.
“You are the fairy tale told by your ancestors.”
— The Good Men Project (@GoodMenProject) March 10, 2019
It’s never too early to start talking about Father’s Day on The Good Men Project. We’re looking for sponsors and contributors for our #ModernDayDad campaign. https://t.co/WJvKqq2kTe pic.twitter.com/j66LNCY0VG
— The Good Men Project (@GoodMenProject) March 11, 2019
We celebrate Gay Pride all year long. But this year, we’re doing some special programing for a large-scale campaign #LoveEqually. We’re looking for both sponsors and contributors. Check it out! https://t.co/tkraXFPxLL pic.twitter.com/X2FlBEZb8Y
— The Good Men Project (@GoodMenProject) March 11, 2019
Photo credit: Pixaby