Why Bother Talking About Family Trauma?

Why Bother Talking About Family Trauma?

I remember my mom often said, “Don’t dwell on the past.” But dwelling on the past and learning from it are different. To dwell means to put your stakes down, inhabit, and abide. To learn implies to realize, comprehend or get the idea. Though our past is behind us, it has a way of continuing to influence us, especially if we experienced any childhood trauma. At the age of twelve, my father committed suicide. Though my three brothers and three sisters and I all experienced the same trauma, we did not all experience it in the same way simply because of our age.

      Learning From Each Other

At the time of my dad’s death, my youngest sibling was nine, the oldest was twenty-one. We all went to bed one night knowing our father was alive, but the next day, everything in our lives went sideways. Suddenly, mysteriously and without any explanation, my dad had vanished from planet Earth. Back in the 1970s, suicide was not a topic families discussed openly and for that reason, my mother’s explanation to me about my father’s death went like this;

“Your father is dead.”

“How?”

“His heart just stopped.”

Her commentary on his demise left me with a load of suspicion and finding out the truth became paramount to me. In a large family like mine, the older siblings always knew more than me. If I asked an older sister for the truth, she would tell me. Indeed she did, yet her honesty left me reeling in confusion. 

Though Dad’s death was an enormous life changing event for each of us, no one ever said anything about it. In essence, we were all left to ourselves to sort through the rubble and find our own way to survive. And most of us did. 

Though my dad’s suicide is ancient history, only recently has it become a topic of discussion among my siblings and me. And in talking about it, I’ve realized I was not alone in some of the issues I wrestled with. It seems most of us grew up with a certain degree of mistrust, a bit of anger, some shame and a lot of confusion. As adults, we learned to cover our imperfections with busyness, appearing more confident than we felt and though we had it all together, and maintaining  an emotional defensive stance. Communicating with my siblings about our shared trauma, all of us longed for trustworthy intimacy, but letting down our guards was often, too much of a risk. 

Talking about the past with some of my brothers and sisters has given me insight into their struggles as well as my own. Sharing our common sorrow has brought us closer together and made us a little more empathic toward one another. 

Why bother talking about family trauma? Denying the bombshell that blew apart a family does nothing to mend broken hearts. Whereas talking about it can lead to understanding each other a little bit better and comprehending why it is the way we are.

Why Bother To Consider?

Why Bother To Consider?

Along with being a wife, mom, mom-in-law, grandma, sister, aunt, friend, author, yoga teacher and public school teacher, I am also a suicide survivor.

My father ended his life on July 5, 1972. I was twelve-years-old. I remember how my mother explained his death to me by saying, “Your father’s heart stopped and he is dead.” Somehow though, I knew that her words were only partly true. 

A few days before his funeral, I asked one of my older sisters, “How did dad really die?” Since older siblings know more than the younger siblings in a family, I trusted her to tell me the real story of his death. Though she spoke softly and quietly, her words were like a heavy, blunt force that hit my heart so hard they took my breath away. His death alone was hard to absorb. That it was not an accident, was harder to fathom. 

Ruminating on the Facts

I connect well with this quote from another suicide survivor, Dr. Edward Dunne, an editor of Suicide and Its Aftermath: Understanding and Counseling the Survivors, when he said,  “For me, being a survivor has made me a reluctant participant/observer in my own inner struggle between wanting that to be the most important fact of my life and wanting it to be the least important.” 

When a person takes their own life, it affects the life of another for the rest of their lives. Regardless of whether or not my father’s suicide is the most important or the least important part of my life, I cannot deny that it left me as a reluctant struggler. 

It is impossible to imagine how my nature would have turned out differently if my father had chosen to live his life instead of ending it. So, I can only say how his death affected me. 

First of all, it pitched me prematurely onto a path of independence. Knowing my dad’s protective presence was gone was like knowing I no longer had a guardian angel. Intuitively I knew I would be on my own in trying to survive his death. Mom’s inability to tell me the truth from the start indicated to me that she would be incapable of any support in the aftermath. 

Though life with Dad had been chaotic, it was still a predictable chaos. After his death the tide of events became absolutely unpredictable. By all appearances, the gates of hell had been swung wide open and something worse could possibly happen. I put up my “dukes” so to speak, taking a guarded and defensive posture against any and everything. Protecting myself from feeling any more pain became paramount.  

My siblings and I did not share our grief. It was private. No one spoke about his death. No one understood just what to do with all the sadness that now permeated our lives. Like silos on a prairie, we stored our sorrow, shame and guilt in silence. 

Now, I know that suicide survivors are connected. We all share the same interior tension. We are reluctant to participate in that inner struggle between wanting it to be the most important fact of our lives or the least important. Nonetheless the truth remains. We survived a suicide. 

Why bother to consider? It is worth contemplating what we struggle with and observe how it partly defines our nature. Then maybe we can lend a hand to a kindred spirit.