I don’t know about you, but I grew up not knowing how to manage or speak about my emotions.
It’s no one’s fault really.
My parents grew up without much permission to feel their emotions, much less talk about them. It was a symptom of the times, I guess. Their parents, my grandparents, had been born circa World War I and had come of age during the Depression. Their lives were marked by national trauma, but certainly they were not given the space to express their feelings, let alone get therapy or any kind of professional support.
In fact, their parents, my great grandparents, or their parents before them, had experienced trauma of their own, having immigrated from Germany, some by way of Russia, to the US. Imagine what that must’ve been like — traveling by ship across the ocean, not knowing what you would find on the other side! My grandparents were raised by folks who had what it took to take huge risks but who likely didn’t put words to their feelings — the courage they must’ve had, the fear, the excitement, and the exhilaration. And they didn’t likely have the time or wherewithal to explore the devastation they experienced once they were settling and growing their families during the uncertainty of World War I and the Depression, so my grandparents learned from their parents how to survive, how to do without, how to make do; they did not learn how to explore their emotions. They likely tucked them deep inside.
They carried residual trauma and latent emotions into their marriages where they had baby after baby and worked their keisters off to provide house and home and a better life than they had had. They put a meal on the table and clothes on their children’s backs, and for that, those children ought to be grateful. End of story.
My parents, the ones who ought to be grateful, were born circa World War II, another national trauma. My grandmother, my mom’s mom, once showed me the ration books she had kept that allowed her just so much coffee, sugar, and stockings while she was raising small children, wearing a dress and heels, mind you, and keeping her house just so. Having stuffed her own childhood traumas deep inside, she was ill-equipped to provide much empathy or compassion to her own children. Her husband, one of eleven children raised by sugar beet farmers, became a successful salesman who brought home the bacon and often last-minute dinner guests. Little Grandma, as we called her, was responsible for being always ready with a picture-perfect house, an exquisite meal, and well-behaved children. If those children had feelings, they’d better check them at the door. My mother tells stories of high expectations and little tolerance for not rising to meet them.
My dad was one of six children. His father worked for the same company my maternal grandfather worked for. My grandmother stayed home, making homemade lye soap, and attending to the needs of all those open mouths and hands. She, too, had lived through her own childhood traumas, though she never spoke of them. Her clinical depression was so severe that she had endured shock treatments. When I knew her, she was mostly silent, mostly bedridden, with a quiet smile covering God only knows what buried emotions. My dad was the youngest of those six. He tells stories of playing in the neighborhood, of having a paper route, of going off to the Marines, but not too much about his interactions with his parents or siblings. He has been, most of my life, successful, content, and optimistic. I’ve seen little evidence of negative emotions or hurt.
Nevertheless, I suspect that my mom and dad, raised by parents with few emotional tools, endured their own childhood traumas, although they wouldn’t call them that, and likely would deny even now that anything they experienced was “all that bad.”
They married young, of course, and had a houseful of kids. They worked hard to provide for their needs as their parents had done for them and to create a home and family. Alas, generations of trauma were coming home to roost. Ill-equipped to process their latent emotions along with the growing demands of four small children, they managed in their own ways and ultimately divorced.
I was in elementary school when they split, and life as I perceived it — nuclear family, ranch-style house down the street from my school, neighbors I’d know all my life — was disassembled. This was, of course, the largest disruption of my life. We didn’t really talk about it as a family, at least not in my memory. No one knew how. How could they?
Here’s the thing though, whether we talk about it or not, trauma has an impact. We have emotional and physical responses whether we can articulate them or not. I can’t speak for my siblings, but I know I felt all kinds of things. I was stunned with disbelief. I remember telling a classmate “My parents will never get a divorce” just weeks before I found out that they were, in fact, divorcing. I had to figure out what my new reality meant. I remember a conversation with my older sister where I told her that I didn’t have a dad any more. She assured me that I would “always have a dad.”
I had all kinds of feelings for years and years. I could flip from extremely happy to extremely angry in seconds. I could spend whole days brooding. I cried easily, laughed loudly, loved fiercely, and got devastatingly hurt, but I didn’t know what to do with all those emotions.
The message I got from my family and friends was that I needed to quiet down, quit crying so much, and get over it, but no matter how hard I tried, those feelings weren’t going anywhere.
I tried a few coping strategies — drinking, anorexia, and academic overachievement — but those only temporarily numbed the feelings which I would eventually have to take out, examine, and process many years later.
Unfortunately for my children, some of that unpacking is happening now, after they are gone living their lives, trying to find words and expression for their own emotions and their own childhood traumas.
I’m sure I’m not alone — growing up with limited emotional vocabulary to process myriad emotional experiences — but it doesn’t have to be this way. We can, in the midst of our own international crisis find the language and the space to loosen up generations of tamped-down trauma, drag it out into the open, examine it carefully, and give it — finally — some language.
Why would we want to do this? Why would we want to dredge up old hurts, expose old wounds, and revisit decades-old losses? Because in seeing, in speaking, in acknowledging the devastation, there is healing, connection, restoration, and hope.
How do I know? I’ve been on this journey for a while now, and I have found myself coming into wholeness, of being able to feel deeply from a whole menu of emotions — joy, sadness, anger, happiness, sorrow, disappointment, and the like. I’ve been learning Emotions 101 in my fifties, and then recently, a friend suggested I read Brene’ Brown’s Atlas of the Heart, and only two chapters in, I know I’m moving into an advanced course. I’m pulling experiences out of my rucksack again and I’m seeing more complexity, finding deeper understanding, and moving through another wave of grief and recovery.
It’s hard. I’ve been triggered this past couple of weeks. I’ve had some painful flashbacks. I’ve connected some dots that I hadn’t even noticed before. I’ve found myself aching.
But, look, generations have not had the ability to look at individual or collective pain — they’ve not been able to fully grieve. They’ve merely shoved their hurts aside and ‘gotten on’. And we’re the worse for it, aren’t we?
Isn’t it time we tried a different way? Can’t we imagine a richer life for those who come along after us? Wouldn’t it be lovely to start a new legacy?
He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”Psalm 147:3