Nameless ghosts of suffering.
They haunt families.
Reaching sinewy tentacles deep into flesh and bone,
Heart and soul.
The pains we can name hurt badly enough.
But the ones that remain without a face,
Without a shape,
Without a voice,
These ghosts are dangerous and hungry.
Over Christmas of last year I thought I heard a note of particular sadness in my father’s voice. He sounded lonely. At first he shrugged off my inquiries.
Eventually he acknowledged that something was on his mind, something about the past. He talked about needing to write a letter to myself and m
y siblings. A letter, he said, that would ” … explain what happened when you were growing up and why it happened.”
A note about my dad: he grew up with ghosts we could name. Ghosts of poverty, discrimination, alcoholism, abuse, and the early death of his father. These were the experiences that had characterized his childhood
and they were enough to explain his various dysfunctions and challenges. My mom had grown up
with her own ghosts of traumatic losses in early childhood, instability, hostility and alcoholism. So my home was inhabited by more than the two of them,
myself, my brother and sister, and the dog. We were a family haunted. Like in so many (too many) other families, my parents’ ghosts evolved to insidiously touch and influence a new generation.
Over the years, I learned to identify the ghosts. I knew them well. I have learned to embrace them with compassion and many have been released. My brother and sister have grown too. They have their own relationships with the past that was our companion growing up. A past, that in becoming the experience of our generation, is still with us in some ways. Mom has faced and therefore healed some of her ghosts and Dad … well, he is finding his way the best he can. Always filled with truly good and caring intentions, his mechanisms for interacting with the world are marred by brokenness. He has, in the past few years, been making noticeable progress in feeling happier and more fulfilled.
And then this mention of needing to write a letter.
My father and I are connected by more than the ghosts. There are spiritual and metaphysical links that have woven themselves across the generational boundary and down through the years. And while I have been aware of these connections, I also know that the ways of healing can be secret and mysterious. The ghosts that are the most dangerous often need help to reveal their names.
Through fall and the approach of Christmas last year, I was going through a transformation of my own. I was renewing my spiritual commitments and deepening my practice. I made a decision to accept a “curriculum of kindness.” I chose a ten year timeline because I wanted a number with some meat on its bones. No one or two year plan. I needed a number bigger than my schemes and defences, deeper than my resistance could reach. A decade seemed like the right fit. I would apprentice myself to kindness for ten years … and see what happens.
This also corresponded with my recovery from a two year relapse of the disability I have live with since childhood. I had been guided to a new protocol of self care and activity management – one that promised a new hope for my future. But this protocol would also require strict adherence and the willingness to relinquish all personal ambition for the sake of my health and well-being. It was perfect really. It required me to care for myself in a new way and provided ample training in choosing a Loving and kind path.
So here I am, embarking on a curriculum of kindness and beginning a new protocol in caring for my health when I notice a sadness in my father’s voice over Christmas.
He chose not to share at the time and I respected that. A couple of weeks later I called to check on him. He was fine, we chatted for about 30 minutes. Then, as our conversation was coming to an end, in response to a not-entirely-unrelated topic, and in his uniquely off-handed way, he spills his guts.
My dad proceeds to disclose three episodes of childhood trauma unlike anything I had ever heard from, or about, him before. These were life-altering traumas. The kind of hurt that, if not addressed and healed, can leave a hole in the soul in the shape of the pain. His stories indicated the kind of trauma that can literally change a child’s brain, altering the way he forms emotional memories, relates to time, and physiologically responds to stress.
I had said before that the ghosts we knew about were enough to explain his dysfunctions and challenges, but honestly I have spent my adult life (my post-therapy awakened life) feeling like the guy still didn’t make sense to me. While doing my best to listen, be supportive, and offer compassion there was a part of me standing in the back of the conversation thinking, “Woa! Okay, now I get it!!”
He had never spoken about these events before. What made the disclosure even more revelatory was his emotion context. My father has made some effort over the years to speak honestly about his ghosts. The challenge for those of us listening (and I am referring specifically to myself and my siblings) is that, usually, these conversations held no meaningful emotional awareness. His discussion with me that night wasn’t resounding with insight, to be certain, but I could tell he was actually feeling what he was saying. There was a genuine awareness of how these ghosts had followed him into adulthood and influenced him as a father and husband.
I felt called to offer him support and compassion – nudging him towards telling my brother and sister. It seems the act of sharing with me was akin to opening a valve and relieving some pressure. Almost four months later (he thought it had really only been a few weeks, until I corrected him) he told my siblings. They got more of the facts and no real emotion. As my brother said, “Dad called and told me a bunch of terrible stuff that happened to him when he was a kid that doesn’t affect him anymore.” With one awful sentence the presence and influence of the ghosts are made so clear.
They are stronger than we imagine, sometimes, even once we give these ghosts their proper names. At work through this process was the family ghost that I could bear the news well, but that my brother and sister might not be able to handle it. Hearing that from my father while negotiating one of the most fragile times in my physiological history was ironic, to say the least. During the months between his disclosure to me and to my siblings I was given the opportunity to get to know these ghosts that now had a name. I listened to their whispers, tracking their progress from one generation to the next, trying to decipher where they might have touched and marked my own journey.
The results of this reflection were startling. While I don’t agree with the metaphysical viewpoint that there is one causal belief behind the development of any disease, I know with certainty that consciousness plays a role in establishing and regulating physiology. Vulnerabilities are created from the stress we experience – particularly the stress we do not know how to acknowledge, and children are particularly at risk. It has been demonstrated beyond doubt that the single most influential risk factor for the development of health issues is the experience of chronic adverse conditions in childhood. The ghosts a child lives with can imprint themselves on both consciousness and physiology by reaching directly into that place within them where there is no distinction between the two.
So as I said, there is no one belief that is the conscious cause of the disease I have lived with and the disability it caused. But the stress I lived with – the ghosts that haunted my family, were a primary developmental influence in my life, both consciously and physiologically. The choice I had made to apprentice myself to kindness and to embrace a new level of self care was shifting both my consciousness and physiology on a moment-to-moment basis.
I was meeting with ghosts of my own that had arisen from coping with the pain and debilitation I had lived with for so long. When I introduced them to my father’s ghosts, that’s when something remarkable happened. I suddenly found myself able to describe my decades long experience with this disability as
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And just as suddenly, a lifetime (maybe even two lifetimes) worth of nameless suffering was able to release.
Did my shift into kindness create space for Dad to share? Did his sharing mean my own ghosts were free to be recognized and healed in a new way? Or was it simply time for these ghosts to have a name? Had the time for healing arrived and both of us were moved accordingly?
It would be easy for my siblings and I to focus on what isn’t happening with our father and his ghosts. He is happier and more at peace than we have ever known him, yet we are seeing no substantive change in the way he relates to us. His sharing has, however, created a substantive change in the way I connect with him.
As far as I am concerned, we are in miracle territory! He’s a guy, in his seventies, reaching for peace with his spirituality and naming ghosts that have remained faceless and voiceless for over half a century. I have no right to judge his progress as lacking in any way. Especially if that judgment is based on the fact that he remains unable to address my perceived emotional needs.