“Recent developments in the fields of cellular biology, neurobiology, epigenetics, and developmental psychology underscore the importance of exploring at least three generations of family history in order to understand the mechanism behind patterns of trauma and suffering that repeats.” Mark Wolynn
Some of us grow up with worry in our hands.
Some of us grow up with anger in our throats.
Some of us grow up with grief wrapped around our hearts.
You might think I was born into grief when my birth father abandoned my 17 year old mother before I was born, but I know I was destined for grief the way Arthur was destined to be King. I am stitched together by grief in the very strands of my DNA, the same way that my grandmother knitted her grief into her afghans and my mother embroidered her grief into Christmas stockings and I stitch my grief into hand sewn dolls. I may be the first one in my family to realize what we do, how before we became enamored with psychotherapy, silenced women would wordlessly weave the grief of their bodies and souls into their arts and crafts. I call it sewing the fuck out of my feelings.
When we carry the unresolved trauma of generations in the center of each and every one of our cells, there is a life in which the accumulation of heartache becomes too much to bear. Grief takes the body hostage. It unravels into muscles as the contractions of chronic pain, or into the lungs as the restrained breath of asthma, or runs completely amok destroying our organs with cancer.
And yet grief is my friend. Not the kind of friend made from shared interests or met at a fun party. It’s the kind of friend you make out of necessity on the frontlines of the war against women and their bodies, where the trenches flow with women’s blood as we are violated by incest like my adoptive grandmother or driven to prostitution like my birth grandmother or sexually assaulted like my young adult daughter.
I am a woman who lives with grief as a member of my family, a resident in my home. Grief wraps herself around me as if she knows every curve of shoulder and hip. For years she pushed and pulled at my womb and wreaked havoc on my hormones. Now she cramps my neck, back, arms, thighs and feet under the guise of Fibromyalgia.
I see grief in the bathroom mirror looking back at me and she reminds me of the last time I saw my mom, when she sat on my toilet and asked me to help her in her strange certainty that fibers were growing out of her skin. She shaved her head and wore a wig so that she could pick at her scalp with tweezers until it was covered in messy scabs.
I didn’t understand my intimate relationship with grief until my mother died a few months later alone in her apartment of an accidental overdose of narcotic painkillers. Since then I’ve learned how suffering is embedded in my cells through both bloodlines and grieflines; epigenetic trauma carried from mother to daughter until I tried to say no more. I thought my daughter would make it out of adolescence without a grief of her own until she was raped by an acquaintance just a few weeks before leaving my nest.
These are the basic facts that I know:
My birth grandmother was a teen prostitute and already had a toddler son when she sold my mother in a hospital parking lot for $400. My mother’s birth father was also the pimp. My grandmother went on to have several more children. My mom was the only one she gave up.
My adoptive grandmother was victim of sibling incest. Her older brother raped her out in the cornfields for years while her family ignored the theft of her innocence and sovereignty. She struggled with literacy and a hatred of sex for the rest of her life. Once she left home she kept her shameful secret to herself until she had a stroke and had to move in with us.
And this is only what I know going back two generations in the maternal family lines. Can you imagine what unresolved trauma and grief lived in their mothers and grandmothers and beyond? I imagine my family tree is weighted with the fruit of grief. I grieve that this is my inheritance, these women’s stories of heartache and the resilience required to live full lives after violation.
My mother grew up in the shadow of these trauma stories. Although she didn’t know their plotlines till adulthood, she was emotionally scarred by the consequences of the abuse and trauma that my grandparents experienced. She lived with pain every day in the form of depression, addiction, emotional instability, poverty, and loneliness. She also lived with physical pain. It started with carpal tunnel in her wrist, then a pinched nerve in her neck, till eventually her body was riddled with pain in what I believe was undiagnosed Fibromyalgia. When she died she was using a medication almost as strong as morphine, as well as taking an antidepressant, sleeping pills, and an anti-psychotic. We assume the last was for what we learned after hear death was Morgellon’s disease, an inexplicable and rare condition in which sufferers believe there is something growing in their skin. Medical science has not been able to prove this is true. I believe her pain, grief and loneliness was so profound that it eventually drove her crazy.
And now I have my own additions to this bloodline. I struggle with Complex PTSD because emotional violence was my first language of relationship. I lived through molestation by a family friend at age 10, public humiliation when the first boy I was sexual with told all the boys in my class, pregnancy the first time I had penetrative sex and abandonment by the father, a second child conceived the night a violent lover put a gun to my head, marriage to a man who refused to participate in our “partnership,” a separation drawn out by his refusal to leave our shared home, too much casual sex in search of love, too many broken relationships in search of belonging, and an inability to keep long term friendships because I unconsciously kept recreating the unresolved traumas of my childhood.
Grief is the longest friend I’ve had.
Today I grieve that I do not have beautiful stories of ancestors and traditions to pass on to my children. I grieve what my children carry in their genes. I grieve that I already know I have passed on chronic health issues, depression, and anxiety. Most of all I grieve that now they are the ones tasked with untying these grieflines if we are to rebel against passing them on to my grandchildren who are waiting to be born.
April Cheri written for and read at a local lit series called Grief Rites in 2016