A Grief Story – Intergenerational Grief.


News that my mother’s cancer was terminal felt unreal. I had always thought I (like my sister) would die first. Nothing seemed to touch her, although I couldn’t fathom what sustained her. An advocate of the importance of family closeness, she had had a mismatched marriage with a husband for whom she appeared to have little regard, no relationship whatsoever with my sister and an appalling relationship with me…I tried to fulfil my ‘daughterly duty’ in spite of a deep unease whenever she was nearby.

I felt dislocated and disjointed by her absence after she died, but not sad she was no longer around. I was missing the structure of the the daily check-in phone call I dreaded, and finally having space at the weekend I wasn’t sure I wanted, instead of the excruciating afternoon visits with her, behaving as the person I thought I should be, but never really knowing who I was.

There had to be something inside me beyond the blank and the practical. I’m not a ‘feeling nothing’ sort of person.

My confusion grew. Was I suddenly about to be flooded by the ‘why couldn’t I have been a loving daughter’ question? Or perhaps, much more distressing, why had she been such a terrifying presence. She certainly had an appalling impact on me (and even more on my late sister). I don’t know how to explain it other than she alternated between neediness, vicious criticism and intrusiveness….with moments of genuine kindness. I feel pretty blood curdled even to be writing this.

My overarching need in the first part of my life was to get away from her to survive. I used to walk around, saying to myself “by the grace of god I came second” because I saw the bundle of unhealable physical and mental bruises that was my older sister (including my mother managing to convince the medics that my sister was mad, leading to a significant part of my sister’s adolescence being spent in hospital).

But why this maternal chaos? I started to focus on my mother’s childhood. She was the daughter of an immigrant mother who came to this country soon after the turn of the twentieth century, leaving behind her parents in Poland, never to see them again. My mother was the less-loved child of two siblings, her brother could do no wrong, and she felt she could do no right.

I started to think about my grandmother’s childhood too, she certainly would have had a right to feel dislocated and grief stricken at being instructed to leave her parents as a young teenager. I only now focus on the unspoken common knowledge of increasing anti-semitism in Poland. Jews from Lomza (where my great grandparents lived) were deported to Auschwitz.

I became increasingly convinced that my absence of grief on my mother’s death emanated from a profound generational trauma that had for decades been too awful to talk about, and which had caused my grandmother a ‘hysterical paralysis’, when she was unable to walk for a year after she stopped receiving letters from her mother in the early 1940s, quite apart from not having seen her parents for thirty years.

My absence of feeling was replaced by intense curiosity about a past I had never before dwelt upon, and now to facing a deep and horrific truth. That the treatment and ultimate murder by the Nazis of my great grandparents (as well as my grandmother leaving her parents) which had never been talked about, and had spilled through our generations.

My initial absence of feeling became a voracious hunger. I needed to know everything, to go to Poland, to walk the streets my grandmother and great grandparents walked, and to visit Auschwicz.

There are always many truths; I imagine that if my sister had been around to read this she would have simply said my mother was a subhuman monster (this same mother who was able to charm pretty much everybody else she met). But the generational trauma, even madness, I’ve now come to believe is a significant part my story.

Unspoken, silent, but dark as night.

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