Tag Archives: parents

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.


A little while ago I did a post on signs in my community. This one has since appeared at the elementary school. Imagine the possibilities…

Short Thought 53 (rotten child)

I grew up in a dictatorship, which as a form of child-rearing, I really can’t recommend. These days I see many parents doing quite the opposite, treating their children’s voices as equal to – or worse – even trumping, their own. They are the parents over-explaining and placating, who offer a myriad of choices for every occasion: from clothes, to entertainment options, to meals, to toys, and to vacations. And what does the youngster delightfully say to the proffered breadth of options? “NO, NO, NO.” The parents may believe they’re creating a self-actualized human being but evidence suggests they’re creating an entitled mini-jerk who can’t be satisfied.

The “Hope Chest”

I’ve got a couple different thoughts on my mind today. I think there’s a theme tying them together – at least I hope there is, because thinking about something and writing it are not the same thing. Ideas that seem connected in mind are not always so connected once put to “paper.” That being said, let’s see how this works out.

I am one of the youngest children from a large, middle-class family. I grew up thinking we were poor but that had a lot to do with what I was both told and experienced firsthand, and moreover I was a naive child (or is that redundant?) and knew little of the world. No doubt “poor” is a relative concept, but a child’s perception has everything to do with what they personally experience. Once those ideas are formed, they become very hard, sometimes impossible, to shake. My childhood view was tiny and ill-informed, but my response nonetheless, was to take everything to heart.

To house their growing family, my parents built their own home before I was born. Later, when other children, from school or friends, learned where we lived, they said in so many words that my family was well-off, i.e., “you live on the rich street.” This was news to me. I didn’t have much, and a lot of what I did have, was shared. My clothes were hand-me-downs from older sisters and cousins, or home-made. One pair of “good” shoes for school and church, one pair of play shoes. Toys came on Christmas and birthdays and often those were shared. I had to “share” a used bicycle, although later I did get one of my own. There was one phone, one family TV. We had a big yard to play in (which I loved), but the house itself was not fancy or especially well-maintained. For years there was a curtain, which was probably an old drop cloth, instead of a door on the second bathroom in the unfinished basement. The rooms were cold and drafty. The basement flooded. There was a concrete side porch with no railing on it for years, where a misstep could have pitched a child off the second story to the concrete walk or patio below. I was frightened any time I had to go out there. Things didn’t get fixed, or got fixed slowly.

I only could have what food was served to me; I could never just “help myself” and was shocked times when I saw one of my older brothers do so without repercussion. The rule at the dinner table was that my father got second portions, not the kids. During the day, when I said I was hungry, my mother would either tell me I was not hungry, or dinner was in “2 hours” or, nonsensically:

“Have a glass of milk, it’s the best food for you.”

(Now, decades later, I continue to thrill at the ability to walk over to the refrigerator or pantry and take out what I want and eat it. Not only that, but I can eat it in the living room, or while watching TV, or seasonally, outside. I’m not being sarcastic either. Despite the fact I’ve been on my own for years, I still relish these pleasures.)

We were all sent to parochial school for our first 8 grades, but I don’t have a lot good to say about the quality of the teaching or how children were treated. The school, despite charging tuition, was poorly supplied and used out-of-date texts. Many of the teachers were hateful and abusive even (I never got hit but saw classmates on the receiving end), and frankly, I was often afraid. My point being, I never saw this private school as any kind of privilege. It was a trial to endure, and given how a child experiences time, I thought it would never end. And almost no matter what went on there, the school was “right” and never, ever, would I have been placed elsewhere. It would have never even occurred to me.

There was an implication that my older siblings might one day do something other than continue to live in the family home. I’m not going to tell you that detailed, elaborate, thoughtful care was put into planning their futures because that would be a lie, but some attention was given. My older siblings, with parental support, took stabs at college. Despite having several daughters, my parents funded and orchestrated precisely one modest wedding, for my oldest sister. They assisted another to live away from home and get a two-year professional degree. An older brother also attended college away from home. Money and things were being parceled out, but selectively (and that would never change).

If you’re not familiar with the (dated) term, “Hope Chest,” it was a literal box of some sort, that parents set aside, typically for a daughter, filled with items she would need and use for later life on her own (presumably in marriage, though not necessarily). My mother started these for my older sisters. Even my sister two years older had a full set of dishes, among other things, in hers. My “Hope Chest,” which was an old shoe box, contained one tea towel, a plastic salt & pepper set and one plastic leftover container. You know, I was trying to write this piece straight, to let the pathos of it come through without too much editorializing or commentary or snarkery on my part. But I can’t. I snorted when I typed that last line. I finished virtual key-stroking the words “leftover container” and out it came. Hope Chest? HOPE CHEST?!? How pathetic is that? I’m serious, when I got the hell out of my parents’ house – and that is how I phrase it when I say it – at 19, those items were what I had To Start My New Life. If I’d had any sense, I’d have left my “Hope Chest” behind, maybe on the bed I wasn’t allowed to take. The truth however, is at the time I was naively glad to have those 3 cheap items. For years, I’d convinced myself they were somehow special (and a child will tell themselves all sorts of things). I didn’t know better. Sure, I took note of my sister’s full set of dishes and things given to other siblings, but I tended to wildly rationalize the discrepancies. Besides, I accepted that my sister got dishes because she was “older” and hence, would need them sooner (although, ultimately I did move out before she did.)

None of this had anything to do with lack of available money but it would be a long time till I understood that. I actually felt sorry for my parents, especially my mother, who talked often of not having the money for this or that and made references to ending up in “the poor house” (wherever that was, I didn’t know but I knew it was bad). As I said, I took everything to heart and tended to feel guilty, as intended, for what little I did get (and not much was given cheerfully and in good spirit). I was not privy to the family finances while I was a child in the house, but later did discover in roundabout fashion what was what. Let us say that in subsequent years what I learned made it very clear that a kind of willful miserliness was a larger issue, certainly when it came to children – some more than others – than anything else.

I think about these things still because their effects are imbedded in my psyche and they continue to influence how I feel and act. It took YEARS to parse all this out. I’m still learning, and tiresome as it sometimes seems, I understand now that it doesn’t ever end. Or it won’t for me. However, the more I figure out, the better it gets. I’m single and while that factors in to my self-reflection, I do believe that single or not, the relationship a person has with themselves is the most important one. Because in addition to determining the quality of your life and ongoing state of mind, it informs all other relationships and even who you’ll have relationships with. For me, getting a handle on how I treated myself, in part by virtue of what I was and was not given (and realizing what I was-and-was-not-given was pretty fucked up), has created the incentive to change. Crap is no longer good enough for me, not from me and not from anybody else. But I had to see it for what it was first.

If I hadn’t changed and wasn’t continually changing, I doubt I’d share this here, but do because a) I’m compelled to think through and make sense of my life and b) not because a reader’s circumstances are necessarily just like mine, but because I know so many people have lived variations of what I’m saying, with their own specificities and personal details.

Short Thought 49 (parents)

I never saw my parents hold hands. I’ve racked my memories and I’ve got nothing. I saw an old photo, when they were a young married couple long before I was born, and in it they’re smiling and holding hands. I don’t know who those people are. In part, it’s kind of nice to see, but really, it doesn’t look right to my eyes.

My “stuff” isn’t getting the better of me any more

Probably like (too) many things, we first learn about “stuff” [tilts head toward the late George Carlin] from our parents. My parents hung onto their stuff. There were two generations between us – they could have been my grandparents age-wise and had lived through the U.S. Great Depression – and I have to think that affected how they approached their belongings. They weren’t of the same exact mindset and that was but one of the things which caused friction between them. (Note to self: Only cohabitate with people who share your attitudes about stuff.)

I grew up believing that a person could have one nice thing of a type for “special” (that was almost never allowed to be used be it shoes, a piece of jewelry, a dish, a dress), and the rest had to be kinda crappy or run-of-the-mill. I learned to hang onto things, because you just never know. And: don’t be wasteful. Contrary to increasingly popular attitudes about scaling back and getting rid of things you don’t need, when I was coming up, the message (from what I heard and read in articles & books) was about how to keep things. But there’s only so many pencil holders made from tricked out tin cans a gal can use.

Over the course of my life, I’ve moved a lot. I don’t mean around the country, but the way a typical renter moves a lot. And I hauled all my sh*t with me. It just didn’t occur to me that I could let things go. I felt an obligation to keep every stuffed animal given to me by old boyfriends, friends or relatives (even though I didn’t really like having them, or so darn many of them past the age of 20 or so); every greeting card, everything I’d made, every knick-knack, almost every present received. It wasn’t as if I was toting around heirlooms, antiques, and things that would appreciate in value. (As I told a cousin who expressed regret over possibly having tossed out too many things, if they were gold bricks you would have saved them.) I’ve kept house plants that were ailing and/or I didn’t like. It’s a plant, a living thing: you can’t throw that out! I kept broken or substandard things: you might be able to fix it one day. Or it’s good enough (and here’s the uncomfortable, then-unconscious part: …for you.)

I never lived in squalor. I always cleaned. But I couldn’t always lay my hands on things I was looking for; my shelves were stacked with books and knick-knacks, my closets were full, my paper files plentiful. Every time I saw certain items – things from the past, broken stuff, things that were once nice, jewelry I no longer wore, things I’d hauled home with the thought of one day making something with them, magazines and books I hadn’t read (yet) – I felt twinges of guilt or unease. Those were familiar sensations, part of the diet I was fed from a very young age, and had been toting around for years. Applying them to my belongings was largely my own doing. (Feelings are always in need of outlets are they not?! We just look around for what’s at hand.)

As I started to look at myself differently – from reading, from thinking, from growing up – I started to look at the stuff differently too. Part of what motivated me was being involved in dismantling the households and possessions of a few people who had died. There is nothing like seeing what another person has held onto to shock you into action. Looks like THEY never found a use for 20 old glass jars. As I mentioned in one of my earliest posts, I saw a garage belonging to a woman I know that was almost empty. It housed a car and almost nothing else. I was so impressed! I watched public personalities like the quirky, common-sensical Peter Walsh, clutter master, and too cute designer Nate Berkus, on TV. I couldn’t relate to the shopping habits and hording I saw in many of the people profiled, but the basic principals I could. I read books from the library: Throw Out 50 Things, Peter Walsh’s books, and others.

What these people said made sense. It’s like they gave me the permission I’d been seeking. I remember one author mentioning that a shelf didn’t have to be filled. Maybe it’s terribly obvious, but that had never occurred to me before. I felt huge relief in letting things go. It became a game and a challenge (and I love both!). What else can I get rid of? I wanted to look around and only see things that pleased me. It wasn’t about money. It didn’t require a bunch of spending, so much as getting creative. Raising my standards. I stopped accepting substandard stuff from other people, both tangible and not. And not to get too metaphaphysical on you, but as I did this, better stuff came along when I needed it.

Don’t imagine I now live in a museum, stark and bare, the kitchen stocked with a simple bowl and a single spoon, the shelves stripped, no knick-knacks or houseplants in evidence. Not at all. I like having pictures on the wall, plants in every room, knick-knacks on shelves, and a couple time-saving devices in the kitchen. Doesn’t have to be pricey or high-end. Comfortable, organized, and attractive is the goal. I need a place that makes me feel cozy and safe and at ease. I need pretty. But I’m mindful and careful now. The whole kit and caboodle requires maintenance, needs me to be vigilant and keep my eyes on the prize.