Heartbreak

A Midlife Reckoning With Childhood Trauma: When Unprocessed Grief Rears Its Head

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sad little girl

I am two months shy of my fifth birthday when my father dies. He has been ill throughout my childhood, his kidneys failing after a childhood illness ravaged them. He has been on dialysis as he’s awaited a new kidney, but he dies before one becomes available. He is 36.

He leaves behind my mother, his wife of 15 years; me and my almost-seven-year-old sister; his parents, whose loss of their only child is a blow from which they are too old and set in their ways to recover. He has been in and out of the hospital for years; I have no way to comprehend that his absence is any different from previous times he went away, even though the plaintive cries of my mother and grandmother scare me.

I’m sure I cry too, though that’s not what I recall now so much as the laughter. I am gleeful that I know the news before my sister, who had been asleep when my mother returned late at night from the hospital. Having information first as a younger sibling is precious, and this is big information, giving it gravitas. I win. I am fatherless now but am triumphant nonetheless.

My mother remarries one year later, and one year after that her new husband adopts us. We are a complete family again; what’s done is done and now we are here, complete with new surnames and birth certificates. Minus a handful of photos and grandparents from the first father, there is little evidence that he existed.

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We move to a new town and welcome a baby into the family. I fall in love with my second-grade teacher; when it’s time to go around in a circle and tell the class our favorite food, I say spaghetti and meatballs because that’s what she says, even though I like neither spaghetti nor meatballs.

We join the town pool, where I learn to swim with a floatation device strapped around my waist. In the winter, the pool becomes a skating rink where in between twirls around the ice in my red flared skirt I drink hot chocolate and eat frozen Charleston Chews. My childhood is full of wonder and innocence.

Children are resilient, and it must be so because everyone says it. Children endure unspeakable loss without the ability to comprehend what they’ve lost or the permanence of it.

 We bury our young fathers but still laugh with delight when we press a button on a vending machine and a can of 7Up crashes down. We wake up one morning to discover that our father has moved out and our family has shape-shifted into an unrecognizable form, as happens to my own kids, but go outside and build a mound of snow for our sleds to careen from and laugh when we face plant in that snow.

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This is celebrated as resilience, the child’s preternatural ability to retain elasticity. Stretch and maneuver a child to the point of breaking and then marvel as she goes back to her original shape.

As a child, I love to watch the superhero Plastic Man. He stretches so far that he reaches up to the sky and then shrinks back to his original size. I am in awe of him, more than any other superhero of the 1970s aside from Wonder Woman.

Do I understand on some level that I am an emotional Plastic Man, my young mind reaching across the ocean for my father and then reappearing at the breakfast table as my own self, small with bright blue eyes and wild curly hair?

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My mother loves me fiercely; her love is so big that she thinks it is enough to wipe my slate clean. She does not want me to suffer as I bereave my father, so she replaces him.

We know only one direction: forward. Going back is full of landmines, so we don’t dare it. We do not look at pictures of him or talk about him and someday we won’t even agree on the cause of his disease and death.

When our family watches home movies, the Super Eight reels flickering against the living room wall, I know the exact moment my father will appear in the footage, looking more serious than a man should who has two giggling girls running in circles around him.

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I brace myself as the room falls uncomfortably silent, a spell broken only by a new scene or by my little brother asking, as he often does: who is that man? This question is so taboo that we avert our eyes; my mother quietly says, that’s the girls’ father and we collectively hold our breath.

I have a love-hate relationship with these home movies. They give me a fleeting glimpse of the man I remember less and less each year, but they bring unspeakable discomfort. We may as well be a family sitting down to watch porn together: this material is forbidden.

I am a sensitive and quiet child; even if I could find my voice, I wouldn’t know what to ask. Instead, I climb the steep staircase to the attic and rummage through drawers and old trunks. I am looking for something, though I don’t know what it is. I read old letters and rummage through files buried beneath baby blankets.

I find yellowed medical papers and letters from lawyers. For months I enter the dusty attic room and pore over papers I have no business reading, no chance of comprehending. I work up the courage and ask my mother: what are these papers, what do they mean?

She nods, knowingly, as if this day was inevitable. The doctors botched the surgery, and the lawyers said I had a malpractice case but warned it would take years to fight; I felt it was more important to focus on you girls than on a legal case. I let it go.

I want to ask: would he still be alive if whatever this mistake was hadn’t happened? But I’ve already run the equivalent of a marathon in asking her about the papers and I’m tired. I put this question away, forever.

I move through my childhood, teen years, and early adulthood, all without knowing enough — about how he died and about what that meant for my development. I am not exactly fatherless; I have a father who adopted and loves me. We have a contentious relationship, but I call him Dad, I feel that he fully accepts me as his daughter.

This somehow makes me feel even worse, which in turn makes me feel guilty. I have a father, I have no right to be sad, my loss has been replaced. There is no room for my grief, so I swallow it and it lodges itself deep inside me.

I keep moving forward. I marry, I have three children, and I divorce. My father dies, but now I am 50. I understand what death is, its permanence. I hear my father’s voice in a message he left on my phone months earlier and I weep. 

Sometimes I think I hear him shuffle into the room and I remember he is gone and my heart seizes. I can barely remember the father who came before him, but now I weep for him too, I think. It’s hard to say who I am crying for anymore.

Children are resilient, it’s true. They are also human and they grieve, for years, maybe forever.

My mother did what she thought was best; she ushered us from a childhood marked by sickness and death into a childhood rich with normalcy.

She treated grief as if she might a long cold: feed it with homemade chicken soup and wait for it to pass. It was a valiant effort and I suppose there was a chance it could have worked, but it didn’t even though sometimes it seemed to, so now I am 51 and mourning the loss of two fathers.

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Laura Friedman Williams is the author of Available: A Very Honest Account of Life After Divorce.  She writes a blog on Medium about parenting and relationships and is a frequent podcast guest on the subject of reinvention, particularly in midlife.  

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This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.