Editor’s Pick: The Relationship File
As Gail’s editor, I’ve had the pleasure of reading and editing all the posts here on The Gift of Being Heard. This week, to conclude a series of “author’s picks” of posts from the last several years, I am pleased to have my own pick. While there are many pieces that stand out for a variety of reasons, I decided to revisit this one, as it poignantly touches on several issues that resonate with me, such as how we can avoid antagonism in the midst of sweeping changes in one’s life, and how relationships really do continue after death, regardless of whether one believes in an afterlife. Most memorable for me, however, is the insight Gail shares about veterans returning from the First and Second World Wars, and what this meant for their processing of trauma and grief. For better or for worse, we live in a different world now. We have gained so much. But what have we lost? I hope you enjoy this post, especially if you missed it the first time around.
In the last decade, I’ve lost my husband, mother, brother, and sister. I’ve jokingly told my younger brother that he’s under orders not to die on me. I’ve also said goodbye to an old faith home and welcomed a new place of faith into my life. All of this comes with grief, loss, mourning what was, and needing to reexamine relationships.
Of those who have exited life, only one was old enough to do so; the other three were all far too young to go. The reality is that they are all gone. The relationships now stand for review in the memory file, and what is done is done. The past faith home also stands in a memory file. Everything is up for discussion and it’s all fair game; nothing is sacred, not even my mother, whom I love deeply.
In looking at all of this, I must turn back the clock to the year 2006, when my husband’s questioning of his faith began. At the time, I wasn’t questioning, but I did want to hear about what he was thinking, feeling, learning, and what was making him angry about it all. The process altered the way we communicated, and it led me to my own path of discovery. It was a good thing, and ultimately, I took from it that relationships can change and that the change can be for the better. We didn’t need to go to antagonism. The concept that we could be different and have a healthy relationship was new to him. We could talk and nothing was off limits. That was where we were when he made his exit. Because examination of things was possible while he was alive, it made it possible to return to the relationship after his death and turn over some of the things that I needed to look at.
Relationships don’t end at death. We carry them forward; they are woven into the tapestry of our ongoing existence. As much as we may wish to erase someone or something from our lives, we can’t. We learn through turning over the rocks to look at it all.
This is also true of my relationship with my mother. I was fortunate that for approximately eighteen years, my mother and I spent every Monday in conversation. We’d giggle, laugh, cry, learn from each other, and talk about things that were deep and serious. Obviously, we spent hours before that time in conversation. When she made her exit, the “I love yous” had been said, and the one question I never asked—the one that I’d like to go back and ask now—I think I know the answer to. Her death came less than six months after Jon’s traumatic death, and I did not go to the memorial. My not attending was a bad choice, and I learned from it. Being there is needful in so many ways.
As I examine my relationship with my mother, I can make peace with what negatives there were. I think the fact that we had that conversation base to draw on has really helped. Pushback was allowed.
Then I look at my sibling relationships. My two older siblings and I didn’t always understand each other. I’m sad about this, and I also know that it wasn’t of my making. I tried. Could I have done more?
In looking at the hard question of putting things right in life, and after they’ve made their exits, I’m challenged by the meaning of our relationship. What is “right?” I love them both. I know that they, each in their own way, loved me. As I take relationships apart, I arrive at the same nasty conclusion that I did in life: They never understood disability the way they needed to understand disability. They were never able to completely understand me. I’ve come to the conclusion that I can be at peace with my end of the relationship and that is the best I can do. This brings up another question for me, and it is one I’ve been musing on for some time.
Why is it that in death, loss, and grief, many people choose to move forward without the work of examining the loss they’ve had in life? The urge to replace someone or something can be strong, and it can also damage us. The more I sit with this question, the more I wonder if it has to do with the fact that our society has radically changed relationships, trauma, and life in general. I’ll explain using WWI and WWII.
Both of my grandfathers were veterans of WWI. They came home on ships. They came home together with war buddies, and in large numbers. On the ships they had time to process the violence and the trauma, and they supported one another. WWII came around, and their sons enlisted and went off to two different fronts: Europe and Japan. They also witnessed violence and trauma, and they came home on ships. They also came home to a hero’s welcome. Their fathers had processed the war and now could mentor their sons. War breeds atrocities, and WWII left the world with several that can never be undone. Old times weren’t any simpler, but they were slower. What’s changed? My grandfather knew the wisdom of allowing his son to prune the rosebushes and tend the garden. He worked through some of the trauma that way.
Leaving the site of battle is a matter of days or hours now. People now come home by boarding a flight that will carry them home. Veterans now come home to a fast-changing society, fast tech, and a culture that is in constant motion. They return traumatized and, in many situations, misunderstood by loved ones and society in general. It alters relationships. This is not to say that my parents’ and grandparents’ generation didn’t suffer from PTSD and other war-related issues. I’m pointing out that their return was slower and allowed for a different type of processing time.
I’m suggesting that maybe we’ve become immune to the damage we’re causing to each other by not slowing things down. In the past seventy-plus years, we’ve moved forward in both healthy and unhealthy ways. This applies to how we treat our relationships.
Are we willing to slow down and take the time to process our lives a wee bit more gently? Parting is hard. No matter how hard we try to avoid it, the past does catch us, and sooner or later what we failed to look at in the near or distant past resurfaces to bite us when we’re not looking!
I reflect back to a night around the dinner table when my father lost it over food. I realize now it was a war memory that he should have sought therapy for, but in those days doing therapy wasn’t common. At the time, it had been about thirty years post war—pruning the roses had not resolved it all. I wonder what would have happened had he looked, talked, and resolved? I wonder how our family would have been changed had he looked. I know how I’m being changed by working slowly and deeply on the past, whether it is peaceful or difficult. I’m moving forward in a healthier manner than had I rushed into my future life. I’m walking into something new, and I hope I’m doing it with grace.