“All human life has its seasons, and no one’s personal chaos can be permanent: winter, after all does not last forever does it? There is summer, too, and spring, and though sometimes when branches stay dark and the earth cracks with ice, one thinks they will never come, that spring, that summer, but they do, and always."
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Custom Rituals for the Holidays: To Ease Pain of Loss and Traumatic Grief
by Connie Saindon, MA, MFT,
I skipped Christmas this year (1997). Instead, I went to Maine where most of my family is, on a special mission. My mission related to the only other time that I remember "Christmas was skipped." DEAD BLONDE IN GRAVEL PIT, the detective magazine reported. The third child in a family of eight, nicknamed "Tiny," was murdered December 8, 1961, at the age of 17. As is so true in many families, the rule - ( you just don't talk about it; it would be too upsetting ) goes on for years. What really happened gets distorted and unresolved grief is traded for avoidance, denial, family feuds and repressed feelings. When each of my parents and siblings said they would be willing to talk about what happened; my mission was to put together our family's story, the story of "Tiny"; and how her death impacted us all. How have our lives changed, paths taken, decisions made, as a result of this traumatic event?
It Never Ends! Through my work as a therapist, my research in trauma and my own personal experience I have learned that it never ends. The effect of trauma continues to play out in ones' life. When I was first in private practice I had a serious case that I dealt with with an intensity that I knew was driven by the murder of my sister. This was 13 years after her death. This was also the first time I experienced the emotional grief over her death. When she died, I was in charge of the 'arrangements', of getting the 'things' done. I learned from this that everyone has his or her own timetable for grieving. My oldest brother agreed to help only if it were to help others. This lead him into pages of journaling and hours of sobbing for the first time since she died.
It started out as a cool New England morning. Coats were a must for this time of the year. My brother Bill remembers seeing her walking her usual route to catch her ride to a city 40 miles away. She'd told him earlier that she had a tooth ache, but was not staying home as she was graduating from beauty college that day. Dad passed her on the road that morning. He can still see her smiling and waving at him. He knows she'd still be alive, if he had only stopped and given her a ride. Overwhelming guilt continues to plague him.
Instead of him giving her a ride, an acquaintance, someone she'd met just a couple of times, offered her a ride that chilly morning in Maine. She was so happy, as was her nature, but today was more special because of the graduation. He needed to find a part for his boat and there was time to look for it at the local dump. Some say she laughed at him because his car wouldn't start. He stabbed her and when she tried to get out of his car he hit her head with a brick. She died 10 minutes away from the hospital. She was pretty; she was shy, and she was so proud of being able to graduate. Her studies were difficult and she'd worked so hard. Instead, her diploma was buried with her as she lay in her favorite lavender dress that she wore at my wedding just 6 days before.
Family Leftovers: Her life was not the only damage done. My entire family got bludgeoned! The damage is so far reaching. Its tentacles grab belief systems in the world and tear them apart. Here it is 33 years later and we are still working to heal and put pieces together of what happened. I found out that all these years when I remembered that we skipped Christmas the year Tiny died, we didn't. Neighbors made sure there was a tree and gifts for all. I have no memory of this. My parents split up and divorced. One brother has had violent reactions to seeing knives. The day one sister was told by a teacher that her sister was dead found a closet to weep alone. She still hides her painful feelings from others. One sister "can't go to funerals". Everyone has protected both my parents by "not talking about it."
In addition to putting together the pieces of her death, we've been putting together our memories of her life and how she still lives on in all of us. The words that we use to describe her are: sweet, good-natured, always with a smile, and wouldn't hurt anyone. My two youngest siblings don't remember her at all. They were 10 and 11 when she was murdered. Tiny's death and life will be remembered by my family and my children. I want you to know her. The damage to families lasts forever . The goal of this author and her family is to give a voice for the long term victims of trauma. Judith Herman in her book on Trauma and Recovery calls such efforts, in the final stage of recovery, a "Survivors' Mission".
At Christmas, I invited my family to participate in a healing ritual and we are constructing a memory album of her life. Each family member is invited to contribute to putting together at least one page of old photos and memories of Tiny. The inscription reads; "This album is dedicated in loving memory to our loving sister and daughter who lives on in all of us."