Inherited grief

I grew up in a big family. A big family that cast a long shadow. Years ago extended family or family friends would sometimes say my parents had “two families.” This phrase didn’t mean what it does now, referring to when a man dumps/leaves his first wife & kids and goes on to have a second batch, usually with a younger woman. In the old days it meant when there was a noticeable gap in the offspring, a span of years when no child was born, as if the parents took a little break from procreating and then started up again.

What people had either forgotten or never knew was that there was a child inbetween the “two families”, a baby that before age one got sick and died. A baby that had a name, several older siblings, a funeral, and a grave. I didn’t know the baby. I came later. The child, who would have been my sibling, just like my many others, was vague and fuzzy. I was told the skimpiest of information. It was a closed subject and I didn’t understand it. I’d be an adult before I could shake a bit of real information out of anyone in the family.

Death and grief were handled weirdly in my family. I’m certain we don’t own the market on that. Things were not discussed. Grief was not expressed. Drama, rage, anger, theatrics – these were all okay. But grief? Sadness? No.

See, what I have pieced together goes beyond this lost child. In the year prior to the baby’s death, a first cousin, the same age as one of my siblings, and a beloved young uncle died, as well as a grandfather. I knew something about these people but even more vaguely than our baby. As a child and even later I wasn’t even clear on who they were or that they – just names – were related to me. Now I can appreciate that they were all people my older siblings knew and loved. Within a year my older siblings, all under twelve years old, lost a first cousin, an uncle, a grandfather, and a younger sibling.

Instead of dealing with any of this or helping the children, it was business as usual in the household. I wasn’t there but I feel certain of it. I’ve gleaned enough information and have simply experienced enough of my family’s ways firsthand to know. Yes, sure, my parents no doubt had their own pain and were almost likely “handling” death as they had been taught long before, but I still fault them. They could have – should have – done better. I think they were too caught up in themselves to offer their children what was needed. My parents were grown; they had resources if they wanted them. What resources did little kids have? Only each other I expect. To whatever degree.

I am convinced my older brothers and sisters were permanently marked by these deaths, made worse by how they were handled. I think they, with no proper guidance or sufficient comfort from our parents, “stuffed” and repressed their grief and pain and consequently paid for it throughout their lives. I’ll grant you, it’s said not everybody deals with death & grief the same, there’s no “right” way, etcetera – I’ve heard all that – BUT if you either don’t deal with it or do unhealthy things as a result, well that ain’t handling it, Sally.

Figuring this mess out has helped me. These are insights I wouldn’t expect other family members to enjoy, appreciate, or welcome.😕 As a rule my insights or attempts to make sense of my family of origin are best kept to myself or occasionally shared with one other member. It helps me though, to understand. If I understand what went down in my family in the many years before I was born I can understand my own life better.

The “second” family – the kids born after the baby died, including me – didn’t have a grief stew in their early lives. The deaths that we experienced were not like the ones our older brothers & sisters knew. Oh, death was still handled weirdly, but there weren’t so many, so close to home. I think I can say, despite whatever else we had to deal with by being members of this particular family, repressed grief wasn’t among them. By the time a very significant death came again to our family, I was old enough to handle it as I saw fit, to actually deal with it, and to try to learn something. The family, on whole, tried to stick with the old, traditional methods of NOT dealing with it, but as soon as that was dead clear to me so to speak, I was having none of it. Grief needed to be handled and experienced, I knew this intuitively and actively sought out ways of doing so.

I think my older siblings were saddled very young with scary things beyond their control, and what is scarier or more beyond control than death? They adopted my parents’ methods of stuffing away grief. But grief never stays put; it finds its way out – for better and not better at all – and can haunt people for a lifetime.

16 thoughts on “Inherited grief

  1. AutumnAshbough

    My mother was a replacement child for her parents’ golden firstborn son, who was hit “accidentally” by local teen boys driving badly when he was 15. She always knew this, though it wasn’t really talked about. The pressure on her and her surviving older brother was undoubtedly unrealistic and excruciating.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Absolutely Autumn. Live children never live up to “fictitious” dead ones. I use fictitious only because dead children’s perfection, whether they had a chance to show their promise or not, tends to be exaggerated.and sometime imagined. My own mother wrapped a metaphorical shroud around her lost baby, as if the child wouldn’t have belonged to the rest of the family too (and would almost certainly have annoyed and “burdened” her as most of us did). Thanks for sharing that.

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  2. JT Twissel

    Well put. I worked for Make-a-Wish and so have seen people handle grief very differently. Stuffing away the grief (in their minds) may have been necessary to save the family. In my experience, a child’s death is the hardest trial a marriage can have. Of course, it’s never a good idea to ignore feelings.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      My parents would never have split up (unfortunately – and for other reasons) but your point is well taken. At least I don’t think anybody was blamed as sometimes happens, particularly when a child dies on one parent’s “watch” (which didn’t happen here). That’s interesting that you worked for Make -A-Wish; I can’t remember if it’s come up on your blog.

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  3. Pistachios

    I suppose context really is important. That’s why books give extensive background info on protagonists, right? So people can understand and empathise?
    My family was also not very forthcoming with talking about the past, but much of my parents’ behaviour etc made more sense after knowing the hardships they had endured.

    Do you think people are becoming progressively more open over generations? Maybe this “sweep it under the rug” / “head in the sand” mentality is an older generation thing?

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Sharon, people definitely deal more openly with death now and there’s a lot more information & resources available on loss/grief; I’ve seen a big difference in my own lifetime.

      Sound point about the protagonists. In this case a heavy-duty religion was involved – my parents probably went with the “god’s plan” thinking in part, just guessing. My mother always disdained tears/crying even if someone was dead, in herself and others. What I find (most) disturbing was their inability to empathize with young children (a recurring theme).

      Did your parents open up to you or…?

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      1. Pistachios

        Yes, my mum told me everything eventually, when I was older. I think I’d always known the outline of it, but it’s good to know the details.

        It’s good you seem to have developed your own way of processing and dealing with the world around you (rather than purely inheriting it from your parents)

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  4. Miriam

    I totally understand the concept of “two families”- in our case my husband and I couldn’t agree on how many kids we wanted so we waited 8 years between the second and third. So we have two adult kids and two teenagers, and yes it often does feel like two separate families. We also have to let people know that we’re both the parents and we’ve stayed together because the assumption is a blended family.
    Anyway, this was a powerful post about loss, grief, and the dysfunctional way your parents handled it. I’m sorry. I’m glad that you have some insight into it though, more understanding of the “why” behind it all. And perhaps this insight helps your relationship with your older siblings?

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Miriam, I always find reading about your family, the older and younger kids and how everyone relates, so interesting on your blog. I can see where people would assume blended family. My parents kept cranking out kids because their religion was against contraception.😕 There’s not quite twenty years between oldest & youngest.quite

      I really appreciate your words. This was but one aspect of a screwy family; the dysfunction in my parents’ marriage filtered through all the relationships, unfortunately. To further give you an idea, only two of their children went on to have kids of their own…

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  5. Becky Ross Michael

    Sounds like you’ve gained some important insights into your family dynamics. Unfortunately, adults sometimes assume that children are “okay” as long as they’re not acting upset. This is probably especially true in cases where the adults are just barely able to manage their own feelings of grief. So wonderful that counseling is now seen as a more common option!

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      You’re right Becky about people assuming children must be “okay” if they’re not showing much. Then again, they usually take their cues from adults; “Let-s all act like nothing happened” or “Buck up & soldier on” for examples .😐 And kids lack the language for their feelings. Now, people know better how to elicit children’s feelings, if they want to & counseling can be so important.

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  6. modernframily

    “Death and grief were handled weirdly in my family. I’m certain we don’t own the market on that. Things were not discussed. Grief was not expressed. Drama, rage, anger, theatrics – these were all okay. But grief? Sadness? No.”

    I relate a lot to these words. My brother passed almost two years ago, and my family members are still ashamed to cry, and are quick to shame others when tears do come. I’m glad to know that I’m not alone here.

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    1. Colette Post author

      Oh, I get it. I think sometimes people believe crying is being weak, or crying (showing emotion) makes the death “real”, or if they start to cry they’ll never stop. But the alternatives to grieving aren’t good, not at all. Especially as the years roll by.

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