After my 97-year-old father's recent move into assisted living, I brought home a large box of letters. The letters were written between my father and his father, from the time my father left home in 1942 until my grandfather died in 1976. This was a complete record of their correspondence.
The letters were organized chronologically. I went straight to 1970-1971.
My mother died in January, 1971, when I was 21. My experience of my mother's death was intense, although at the time I didn't connect my overwhelmed, tearful, and shut-down state with her death.
Our nuclear family lived at a distance from both extended families. During my mother's eight years of dealing with cancer, we had a close-knit circle of community and church friends. Later, I would note that such support, while important, is not an emotional replacement for the extended family. Except for the last two months of her life when my father's sister Rosella was present, extended family wasn't a part of our lives....as far as I knew.
The years after my mother's death were disorienting to me. In 1976 (five years after her death) I was introduced to Bowen family systems theory in graduate school. It was at this time that I made the connection between my disorientation and the death of my mother. It seems astonishing how unaware I was. Obvious other factors stood out: for instance, my relationships were out of balance. While I had lots of contact with my now-expanded step-nuclear family, I was disconnected from my extended family. Today, I might suggest that that disconnect intensified my experience of my mother's death, and left me living a more reactive life.
So out I went. I began to make contact with my extended family.
And I had a "before-after" experience.
I became aware that before reconnecting to my extended family, I felt depressed, overwhelmed, unable to connect productively with men, quick to personalize relationship tension, and over-involved with helping my nuclear family - indicators of a less productive way of life. It was an early lesson in the subtle impact of emotional distance and blindness.
Over the years, Bowen theory has enabled me to see the relationship between one's emotional experience and connection to generational family network. My personal experience suggests that nurturing these relationships (within my extended family) decreases a sense of overwhelm and supplies energy I hadn't realized was available.
So back to those letters. I read the correspondence between my father and my grandfather--piece by piece. I heard my grandfather - a widower himself of four years - talk of losing a spouse. His words were framed in the religious language he shared in common with his son, as he seemed to look for comfort and understanding. Reading these letters and experiencing that generational relationship seemed to affect my emotional memory of 1971. Knowing my father had his father and family close at that time seemed to affect my feeling of being a solitary container for all reactions to my mother's death. I wasn't as isolated from relationships, or as cut off, as I had felt at the time.
Below is a fragment of one of these letters, with its transcription.
Feb 23, 1971
"Thank you for all the report of
experience with Lisbeth's parting. Rosella drops a line or two of what they experienced which must have been quite moving. She was glad that she had been privileged to share with you these last days.
.....Now my prayer is to heal the wounds and give grace, faith to go on. I am sure He is granting that. Keep looking up."
How does this work? Experiencing the nature of my father and grandfather's relationship - even in letters of many years past - changes emotional history for me. Perhaps the present, too, in ways I may fully know only years from now.