“Hello Phoenix. How are things? Is your job doing well? How’s the family?”
I could tell by the tone in his voice, this wasn’t the reason for his call. We’ve played phone tag for years, sometimes connecting on major holidays.
Ok, really that’s the only time we seem to call each other. And even then, we usually end up leaving messages.
I only get the lowdown on what’s going on in his life when my cousin and I connect, his daughter bringing me up to date on her side of the family. Otherwise, living in different cities without my grandparents or our mothers alive to keep us connected, our family has gone our separate ways.
Both my uncles haven’t had the opportunity to watch their two grand nieces grow into the beautiful young women they’re becoming. This realization brings me sadness. My girls have also missed out knowing my family.
With my separation and divorce, my annual Christmas “newsletters” have subsided to sending nothing for the past six years. No one in my extended family knows the trials, the ups and downs, and the lessons I’ve learned. No one in my extended family knows all the accomplishments my daughters have had. No one in my extended family really knows us. With the death of my marriage, my life with my family died as well.
Of course, that’s on me.
My Grateful Sunday posts are a way for me to recall my past years, but these aren’t shared. My family doesn’t know about my blog (other than my ex, my cousin, and my sister). I write with a pseudonym, not only to protect my girls, but more importantly, to keep me from bringing shame due to my actions.
Sex addiction carries the same stigma today as alcoholism did in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s.
It doesn’t matter that a man got help because he had betrayed his wife not once, but numerous times. It doesn’t matter that he looked deep within to heal the childhood trauma that haunted him all his years, searching for some kind of connection to feel worthy and loved. It doesn’t matter that he tried to understand how his actions affected his wife so he could not only salvage the marriage, but could learn how to help her heal.
Many view sex addiction as an excuse, a “get out of jail free” card. Which is understandable. Those partners who are betrayed end up having to manage their own trauma triggers and reactions; their own world shattered in an instant, overwhelmed by the emotional and physical pain caused by a person they trusted and loved.
As I mentioned in my blog, I Lost My Voice, my family had to show the world we were perfect in all regards. To bring shame upon the family meant risking becoming emotionally abandoned by the very people we loved.
I have avoided bringing this topic to the surface in a family that avoids the deep topics. I have followed in my family’s footsteps of keeping secrets.
And it is these secrets that only perpetuates the cycle of intergenerational trauma.
We Hide From Trauma
My uncle changes the subject after limited small talk. “Phoenix, that’s not the reason I called.”
My heartbeat quickens. My stomach tightens. My fingers start to shake. I’m waiting for the bad news.
“Uncle Jack was admitted into ICU yesterday. He needs to have heart surgery. Right now he’s too weak. Your aunt and I just got back from the hospital the second time today so we could say goodbye.”
He then talked about my uncle’s heart condition and what brought him into the hospital. He explained how Covid prevents anyone from seeing him. He also said my uncle was unaware of what’s going on, so wouldn’t even know if people were visiting him anyway.
As if that made it ok not to say goodbye.
I heard what he was saying and yet, I didn’t.
I detached, breathing deeply, barely listening. I was surprisingly calm and felt an internal critic willing me to feel sadness and pain.
There was nothing. I only felt numbness.
“How can you feel nothing right now?” my inner child screamed at me.
“Oh, Little Phoenix. We will. In due time.” My adult instantly nurtures my little boy. “We’re in shock. We know how grief works. We’ve been there so many times. Right now, what’s important is I take care of you.”
There was a lot I wanted to do Wednesday night. Things I needed to get done since I only had two days off before another four days of work. Instead, I reluctantly did what I knew I needed to do.
I put my To Do List aside.
Why is that so hard? Why is it so difficult to stop all the “musts” and “shoulds” we end up showering upon ourselves and learn how to take care of our needs without guilt or shame. We were just talking about that a few hours previously with my Accountability Pod.
Another blog for another time.
I asked my youngest daughter if she wanted to continue watching The Haunting of Bly Manor or if she wanted me to continue reading the book, Lobizona, I’ve been reading to her.
We chose the Netflix series, which ironically is not a ghost story, but a story about love. How fitting. Our family does have a lot of ghosts hiding out in closets. Ghosts of past traumatic experiences that have been buried for years.
I grabbed my cross stitch, sat down with some chocolate (yes, I know, reaching for comfort sweets is my cue that I’m extremely off but have not acknowledged it yet) and we watched not one, but three episodes. My daughter wasn’t happy when I said “No” to finishing the series and watching the last two shows. I would have liked that, however, I know how worse off I’d be the next day with little sleep.
The following morning, I woke up wondering how many people would even attend my uncle’s funeral service if he had passed away in the night?
With Covid, will there even be a funeral service? Many of the extended family members are too old to gather together. Will my uncle have a small memorial and burial where only a handful of people will attend?
And if no one shows up, does it mean nobody cares?
More importantly, what would be said?
Who’d be brave enough to speak the truth, not hiding behind the mask that many of us show the world?
Without any children, Uncle Jack’s only close family is his brother’s family, his girlfriend, and me. I don’t know how many friends he has. Unfortunately, due to his emotional outbursts, temper tantrums, and unpredictable behavior when he’s either stressed, drinking, or someone disagrees with him, he has pushed us all away. It was better to keep our distance, my ex and I, along with my cousin, agreeing we didn’t want that influence on our children as they grew up.
The family held boundaries.
I make up my uncle felt rejected and abandoned.
Neither side acknowledged that the depth of what was going on was based around childhood trauma in our family. Neither side has been willing to take the step to collectively bring in a therapist to heal our wounds.
Instead, we hide from the truth.
And when (or if) we have the chance to celebrate Uncle Jack’s life, we will sugar up his story, wrap it in a bow, and send it off with good intentions. We don’t realize that we only harm ourselves in the process. And we hurt the next generation because we’re too afraid to be vulnerable enough to speak the truth.
We avoid focusing on the problem and thus never find the solution.
What does one say at a funeral that really should be said?
Uncle Jack’s Eulogy
I would like to thank all of you for being here today and supporting our family. I know your time is precious. I truly appreciate your willingness to comfort us in this time of loss.
Many of you know Uncle Jack’a incredibly huge heart. He loved fiercely and had a kid-like joy that emanated from him. He was free-spirited and could tap into his inner child and play like no other.
For those of us who knew him on a superficial level, that is who you saw. Someone who gave everything, loved passionately, and enjoyed being the center of attention.
However, for those of us who were closer to him, we had a different perspective. We lived in fear wondering when his next temper tantrum might erupt because he didn’t get his way. When things were going fine, one wrong word or something upredictable might send him into an instant rage. His temper was even shorter when he was drinking.
When Uncle Jack blew up, he’d become verbally abusive quick to lash out with his tongue eventually raising his voice to a level that brought terror into our hearts. The look in his eyes made us believe that if we didn’t back down, his cutting words would eventually turn physical, fists pounding out his anger upon us.
We learned it was safer to shut down and not engage. We learned it was safer to walk on eggshells. We learned it was safer to absorb the verbal blows that hammered our souls because like a debate with my grandmother, he would always have the last word.
As I stand here before all of you today, I see not only the acknowledgement in your eyes as I speak the truth, but I also see anxiety, anger, and judgment staring back at me.
These are not the things we talk about at a funeral. How dare I speak such harsh words over the dead.
We didn’t gather here to talk poorly about my uncle. This is not how we celebrate someone’s life. We want to paint the truth with a rainbow of color. For when we do, we don’t have to look at our own world of blackness and darkness.
I discussed this with my writing group today. How do we talk about the trauma one causes others and yet try to understand that it’s really a traumatic response to their own childhood wounding?
We need to shine the light. Not to squash and kill the cockroaches of shame, resentment, and pain, but to gather them up in our arms, hold them close to our hearts, and love them so they can transform into butterflies.
Yeah, yeah. I know. Cockroaches don’t metamorphose into butterflies. But what if? What if they could? Or why must we shy away from them like we do rats, vermin, and other pests?
Why do we view trauma as something to avoid and run from, then shame, attack, or flee the outbursts of people who have not healed from their own suffering?
We need to stop. We need to stop turning off the light.
Turn it on! By turning on the light, we can study what’s going on within us. We can start healing each other from the inside out instead of expecting it to come from outside ourselves.
And how do we shine the light on trauma? I’m so glad you asked.
We first talk about it. We talk about it so we can learn how to dance with it.
Awareness is the first step towards change.
So, let’s use this time to have empathy and understand. Let’s use this time to focus on the things we needed to focus on while those of us who are still alive can do so before we too die, our own trauma unhealed, only to be passed onto the next generation.
To do that we need to take a step back one generation to understand my grandparents, Uncle Jack’s parents. What was the driving force that made my grandfather become such a successful engineer? What was his life like growing up? How did the expectations he had from his parents create the environment my mother and uncles grew up with?
My grandfather was a quiet man who frequently stepped into his inner child, being playful, cooky, and happy-go-lucky. A huge fan of the Muppets, he’d grin and laugh hysterically while watching a show. And yet, he had a presence, a sense that he was in command. He was the man of the house. In his quiet, mellow way, he garnered respect. His word was law and that was the end of it.
Maybe it was the generation. The way it was during that time. A man had a place and a woman had hers. Roles and expectations. This was how it was and nobody was going to go against societal norms.
My grandmother also could tap into her child, many times skipping around the kitchen singing songs and laughing while cooking. But give her a couple of drinks, and she could easily shift into a shaming and controlling woman who let her children know how difficult they made her life.
Maybe this was her time to try and be heard in a culture that also shut her down. Maybe she felt she didn’t have a voice compared to her husband, so would vomit her wounds and pain, a burden placed onto her children to carry.
Who knows. We were never allowed to talk about it.
So, we have my mother, a first born trying to do everything in her power to receive validation in life. A second born, who found comfort outside the family learning that it was safer to isolate rather than engage. And a third born, who unconsciously learned that the only way to get attention was to act out. The stereotypical traits due to birth order.
Now let’s add, what I know, of the trauma piece.
Uncle Jack’s grandfather was a professor who had an affair with one of his students who was 20 years younger than himself. He divorced his wife and married this woman, who had two young boys, who were around the same age as my uncles and mother.
This meant, that through marriage, Uncle Jack’s father (my grandfather) instantly had two brothers the same age as his children.
Uncle Jack’s grandmother was literally broken from this affair. Back then, no one knew that betrayal causes PTSD symptoms similar to rape. Back then, divorce was looked down upon and meant being kicked out of the Catholic Church. Back then, divorce was not talked about, a shameful event that was better left unsaid.
To protect Uncle Jack’s grandmother, his parents decided to bury the secret. They would not talk about what happened. They would live life as if it didn’t. And they would not allow their children to address their grandfather as “Grandpa.”
He was just a “friend of the family.” They literally had no idea of his relation to them.
Fast forward to Uncle Jack being a teen and managing the emotional loss of his grandmother. It was at this time his parents felt it was ok for the story to come out. “Oh, by the way. You know the person you think is a friend of the family? He’s actually your grandfather. We didn’t tell you because we didn’t want to hurt your grandmother. Those boys you play with are your uncles. And you can now call his wife Grandma.”
Secrets, while meant to protect, are the ghosts that haunt us later in life.
We lose faith that people are honest. We lose our ability to trust.
We question our reality. We question our sanity.
We lose our identity.
We start questioning everything; if this isn’t true, what else is a lie?
And once we start going down that rabbit hole, we start to question our value and worth.
Uncle Jack drank a lot. I believe he was an undiagnosed alcoholic. Of course, that wasn’t something we talked about either. Maybe amongst ourselves, but never with him. Addicts deny and deny. And when one is as unpredictable and as volatile as Uncle Jack was, loved ones don’t want to breach that subject for fear of the backlash.
As I look from the perspective of childhood trauma, I see the patterns laid out right before my eyes. I see how he married a woman who, herself, was a drug addict. I see how he did everything in his power to take care of her and help her get the help she needed to sober up.
She never did get healthy. I believe the subsequent divorce only reinforced the belief that he couldn’t do enough to care for her or to earn her love. Anyone’s love as well.
I see a little boy who recreated his effort to receive validation and love from his parents. I see someone desperately wanting to be loved. Someone who had so much to give to others and yet unconsciously kept pushing them away.
I see someone who created what he believed.
Uncle Jack was never to marry again. He had no children, although, I believe, he always wanted them. He lived out his life as an uncle, giving to his niece and nephews what he would have loved to have provided as a father. And yet, not having children of his own, he didn’t understand the challenges and trials of parenting, coming at it from a different perspective altogether. This made it difficult to relate to his sister and brother, further opening the void between them.
I’ve focused the past few years on how MY losses affected ME; my mother, both my fathers, my aunt, my grandparents, my great aunt, and my godparents. I have been so focused inward, I never once wondered what it was like for Uncle Jack.
I never once considered the effects those deaths had on my other uncle or his children for that matter. He lost his wife, their mother, after a much needed heart and double lung transplant in the mid ’90’s.
Uncle Jack lost his parents, his aunt, his older sister, brother-in-law, and sister-in-law before the age of 65. Without his parents and his sister around, our family became fractured, the last get together with all of us in the immediate family over ten years ago.
No more holiday meals. No more exchanging of gifts. No more hanging out at our cabin playing games. No more spending time as a family.
And with all that unhealed trauma, Uncle Jack’s actions continue to push away the people that meant the most to him.
How much shame did he carry because of his divorce? How much trauma did he carry because of the secrets in his life? How much sadness and regret did he hold onto because he couldn’t “control” his outbursts? Did he truly use alcohol and weed to medicate the pain? And if so, how much guilt and shame did he struggle with trying to accept those vices were partly to blame?
What would have happened if we weren’t so afraid to shine the light?
Why do we find comfort hiding in the darkness?
I think it’s because intuitively we know that when you shine the light on one family member, you just may need to shine the light on yourself. You may get forced to confront your own demons, your own issues, your own trauma.
Do we want to look in the mirror?
No. That’s some scary shit!
Instead, we keep packaging it up with that tiny bow so we don’t have to look at our own piece.
Trauma isn’t something we talk about. We don’t heal from trauma that way. It’s in our bodies. It’s within our tissues. It’s in the cells of our bodies.
Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk states:
“…the engines of posttraumatic reactions are located in the emotional brain. In contrast with the rational brain, which expresses itself in thoughts, the emotional brain manifests itself in physical reactions: gut-wrenching sensations, heart pounding, breathing becoming fast and shallow, feelings of heartbreak, speaking with an uptight and reedy voice, and the characteristic body movements that signify collapse, rigidity, rage, or defensiveness…”
We judge, shame, and point fingers at those who turn to addiction to medicate their traumatic physical reactions. We either fight, avoid, or talk negatively behind the backs of those who are reactive when triggered by their trauma. We hold boundaries, but don’t say why we’re doing so.
We don’t suggest getting help because we don’t want to be accountable for our piece.
And what happens is, we lose another person, a man who had a heart filled with so much to give but no one available to receive it. A man who dies alone most likely believing that he had no worth and was not loved.
No, this is not what we talk about at funerals. This is not the eulogy we want to hear.
But it may just be the one we need to hear!
We’re all broken in one way or another. We all need to be courageous. We all need look inward and heal our childhood wounds. We all need the tools to learn how to nurture our inner child.
As we step outside the comfort zone and heal what’s within us. As we open the door to be vulnerable about our transformation. When we shine the light on others so they too can come out of the dark.
This is when we can love those cockroaches and transform them into beautiful butterflies.
Uncle Jack, I’ll be looking to the west. I can’t wait to see the sunset you and your sister paint on the horizon tonight. I know my mom will teach you well. She does paint some masterpieces!
Please know that your death was not in vain. For this is just a stepping stone to something greater.
May we look at the gifts you have given us today.
A gift of acceptance. A gift of forgiveness. A gift of healing. A gift of love.
We can Rise from the Ashes.
We can fly and soar.
Together We Can Heal.
A Grief Observed
Last night I met with my accountability pod. One of our members had lost his mother at the beginning of the year and was looking for support from our group. I had come across the book A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis suggested in a bible plan I’ve been reading.This short story is a compilation of journal entries that C.S. Lewis wrote following the death of his wife.
C.S. Lewis talks about his grief and his confusion with God and religion. The writing is a bit disjointed, not linear, but published as a flow of thoughts from a man struggling to make sense out of the world in his depth of despair.
“Bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love.”
“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth of falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?”
I listened to the audio version and have decided to purchase this book. There’s some great nuggets of wisdom scattered throughout and I’d like to have them available at my fingertips to help process the loss of my uncle. I recommend this book for anyone going through the loss and grief of a loved one.
My girlfriend suggested I call the ICU and see if the nurse would hold the phone up to my uncle so I could say something to him. The woman in the hospital was incredibly sweet and obliged. She reminded me that he wouldn’t respond and wasn’t sure if he would actually hear me, but transferred the call to her phone, placed it on speaker right next to him, and allowed me the opportunity to talk to say the things I had been meaning to say but have kept to myself.
She gave me the gift of saying goodbye and I believe he heard me.
Two hours later he passed away.
I had talked with a close friend who has known my family all my life. I said to him that I felt I had failed my family. That with everything I’ve learned over the years, I had the tools and the knowledge to open the subject of conversation so we could heal the riff which had turned into a chasm between us all.
He reminded me that not everyone wants to change.
Some people find comfort in the drama of their stories. Others are too afraid to look at how they’ve contributed and hurt people. And still, there are those, who are completely blind and refuse to acknowledge they need healing at all.
The questions I have are, how often do we allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to let others know it’s safe for them to open up too?
If we know trauma can be healed by finding the right modality of treatment, why wouldn’t we suggest or guide a loved one to get the treatment they need to free themselves, like the elephants, from the shackles that hold them in place?
What’s the difference between putting up a healthy boundary vs. dismissing someone who’s most likely unaware that their actions has caused protective barriers to come up?
Can we honestly be angry and resentful at someone’s actions when we never expressed our truth to them?
How do we find empathy and compassion trying to understand a person’s actions rather than focusing on how those actions have hurt and affected us?
How do we find forgiveness?
If someone is unwilling to take the steps to transform or if we decide we need to hold a boundary, it is our responsibility to be honest about what we need and why we are doing it.
This allows the other person to make amends or do what they need to do to change and grow. If they decide not to address those issues, that’s their choice. We have done what we could to take care of our inner child.
Yet, if we remain silent and are not vulnerable, we only create secrets that will perpetuate the stories that someone else makes up about themselves. By not being honest with someone else about our actions or intentions, we only add fuel and flame the fires of their trauma.
In some cases, it’s a fine line. There are times when it’s not safe to speak up. People do have consequences for their actions.
I sit in the “what if” world today and still more questions.
What if I had spoken up? Could I have helped Uncle Jack heal so he felt loved, worthy, and enough? Could I have helped him not feel that he died alone?
Could I have helped him Rise from the Ashes?
Would he have given me more insight to understand and work on my own trauma?
Could we both have healed each other? Could we have healed our fractured family?
What if I had let him read my blog and made the attempt to crack open the door?
Unfortunately, as my deceased parents never knew about my addiction, my trauma and my recovery, I will never get an answer from Uncle Jack. It’s too late.
I’m also realizing as I continue to blog, I need to find forgiveness for the actions of my family that brought about my own trauma. They were only dealing with what life dealt them and only knew how to manage with what they knew at the time. They, too, had their own trauma wounds and I need to find empathy and compassion with their past as well.
We all need to step outside our comfort zone. We need to look within to heal and nurture our inner child. We then need to reach out and help the ones we love.
When we step out of the darkness and shine the light, Together We Can Heal.
This dedication is for you Uncle Jack. I know how much you loved Wolfman Jack.
The Wolfman Jack Show