Death, Dying & Affairs of the Heart
On Family (including the Furry Variety)
My dog Daisy’s heart is hurting. The heat in the UK didn’t help – it almost did her in, spiking her breathing rate into the alpine peaks of the 60s. I have a lot of heart heaviness about my beloved mutt. My 60th birthday gift to myself – a year back at school in Boston - meant leaving her behind in the UK. My alter ego, my shadow, my teacher in how to be both loving and loveable, this dog who has walked by my side, parked under my writing desk, or snuggled up close to me on every occasion this past decade, is getting - suddenly – old and tired. I can’t help guiltily feeling she is heartsick at my leaving her behind.
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It’s not that she’s not well cared for. She’s with Tim’s best friend Marian, one of her favourite humans. Who lives in the country. And walks her every day through gentle English countryside. But she’s an overbred King Charles spaniel, fated by genes and greedy breeders to suffer mitro valve disease. Standard life expectancy is 9.75 years. Daisy turned 9 last March… the latest missive from the vet mutters about a 6-month window from her current conditions. It’s all giving me mirroring heart palpitations. I’m rooting for her to hang on until we get home at Christmas. One (not very scientific) study even suggests that our heart rates sync and lower when we are with our dogs -our soul’s favourite sibling.
“Our heart rates sync and lower when we are with our dogs - our soul’s favourite sibling.”
In the meantime, I’m back at my mom’s, sitting by her wheelchair, with my beloved daughter and husband nearby, knowing we are also, here, in the final stretch. In preparation, and to ease the strange, rather ceremonial waiting of this time, I’ve been reading a book (my personal source of salvation in all things) by Judy Wilkins-Smith called Decoding Your Emotional Blueprint. It’s about the emotional legacies we get from our history and families. Basically, the heart you’ve inherited. Whether, like Daisy, you are programmed with trauma and illness from prior generations. Knowing that an unexamined past is bound to repeat the unconscious patterns that have been embedded. What may seem like a family curse is actually, she argues, more of an inheritance. “I call this inheritance,” she writes, “your emotional DNA, and it is based on your interpretation of the events in the emotional blueprint of your family system.”
This is all about a form of systems work I first learned about in my ORSC coaching training called ‘constellations.’ It involves physically and visually mapping out your relational system in 3-D to see it – and hopefully understand it - more clearly. Wilkins-Smith is a specialist of this approach and looks at your family (or any human organisation) system through three lenses:
1. Belonging – the need and struggle to belong is often at the “root of people’s failed ventures or failure to change.” Loyalty to the system can override your own needs.
2. Place and Order – your place in the family or organisational system (eg. Eldest child or senior VP). If you were, for example, supporting parents as a child, rather than having them support you, you were out of order.
3. Balance of Give and Receive – are you giving/ taking too much (love, money, time, attention) and not taking/giving in return? The balance of both is key to a healthy system and relationship.
When you fail to do your own internal work, Wilkins-Smith cautions, “you leave it to your children to pick up and repeat the incompletions you won’t address.” That’s why I’ve been plunging into these familial depths as my family tree evolves this year – by facing the upcoming loss of mother (and maybe dog!) and the addition of a granddaughter who has just walked her first steps. I sense unresolved issues roiling around in our system. It’s time to find out why.
Last Sunday afternoon, I pull out a stack of cards and get to work. The carpet, covered in cheerfully coloured post-its, very quickly resembles a war zone. Because that’s what my family legacy is, mostly. My paternal grandparents, whom I never met, emigrated from Russia (fleeing pogroms) to Germany then Switzerland during WWII (and safety). My maternal grandparents were born in Germany and fled to France, from where they were deported. The post-its that ended up dead start piling up. My grandmother lost her husband and eldest son to Nazi death camps. My mother thus lost her brother and father. Later, she would lose her young husband after only a decade (cancer) and her eldest son (cancer again). I would thus lose my grandfather, uncle, father and brother over time. Not a good family to be a man in. My grandmother lost her daughter (my mother) to emigration (to Canada) and ended up living alone for decades in Nice. I repeated that pattern a generation later. I moved to Paris at 19 - and stayed – reversing the transatlantic journey my mother had made leaving her own mother. My mother has lived on her own for almost 60 years after my father died. Oh geez. It gets a bit overwhelming when you lay it all out on a rug.
And it keeps rolling around our troubled species. A NYT article gives a daunting picture of the harm now being suffered by Ukraine’s children. “Every one of Ukraine’s 5.7 million children have trauma,” says UNICEF’s Murat Sahin. And so another embedding of pain passes through yet another set of generations.
I went to see the (saccharine) film of the runaway 2018 best-seller I’m sure you have read, Where the Crawdads Sing. It was the first novel written by 70-year old Delia Owens, who spent years in Zambia with her husband as a biologist and wildlife conservationist. I recommend avoiding the film’s Hallmark torpor, but it reminded me of the book’s three central characters. Each suffered different family losses and traumas:
Kya – who’s mom runs away from her abusive husband, followed by all her siblings, leaving her on her own, shunned by the community.
Tate – who loses his mother and sister in a crash, and eventually heals with and through Kya.
Chase – who’s family is intact but awful, prioritising ‘belonging’ to small-town mores over true love, turning him into Kya’s (eventually dead) abuser.
But this powerful narrative of non-belonging, disrupted order, and unfair ‘give and take,’ gobbled up by millions (including me), may itself be an eerily close retelling of a very real and nasty tale of American hubris, murder and intrigue hidden in the African bush. The film’s success has resurfaced some unresolved questions about its author. An ABC report about Mark and Delia Owen’s rather authoritarian/ vigilante style of wildlife protection filmed an actual murder of a supposed poacher. When the Zambians launched investigations, the Owens returned to the US. The case remains open – and disputed. ABC won’t release the film footage. The Crawdad book ends with the admission that the heroine really had committed the crime from which she was absolved. But in real life, the stories and secrets of our lives and lineages never really let us go.
“In real life, the stories and secrets of our lives and lineages never really let us go.”
It's strange how one’s reading often serendipitously matches one’s mulling. The novel I picked up this week was the Bastard of Istanbul, by Elif Sharak. An exploration of the long-fingered legacy of the Armenian genocide on one Turkish family. Whether you ignore the past, silence it or deny it , suggests the novel, its stealthy power finds its way into every subsequent generation. Two young women, related in ways they don’t understand, are searching for answers their elders are reluctant to face or share. One is angry and bereft of knowledge. The other weighed down by history. The crimes at the heart of their distress are fighting to be heard and acknowledged.
I’m struck in coaching midlifers how few people have revisited their (and their family’s pasts) as they begin to design their futures. Many move into their 50s and 60s thinking they’ll do a bit of a professional rethink, only to discover that some of what emerges as parents start to die and children emerge into adulthood is bigger and deeper than expected. It makes me wonder about the potential role of the in-between generation in an age of longevity – an opportunity to explore the inherited patterns and choose to break or embrace them. To understand one’s own past in the context of a much broader picture. And not take so much on our own individual shoulders.
There are huge, unpredictable historical forces at play. You can feel the thunder reverberating all around. Multiple storms are approaching – this week was full of China’s threats about Taiwan, the tiny minority of Tories choosing Britain’s next Prime Minister, the punishing heat almost everywhere, US state treasurers fighting climate action, and Putin’s continued mauling of Ukraine – that are, like many of our families, the symptoms of past traumas, choices and the slanted narratives of those who survived.
In public as in private, futures built on secrets, lies or simple avoidance will always be unsteady. “Over time,” writes Wilkins-Smith, “the details of events fade, but the symptoms get louder and louder.”
I started this newsletter a year ago next week, on my 60th birthday. What a year it has been! Thanks for joining me on the ride. As I careen into this 7th decade, I’ll share some of my news and plans … next week, on my birthday.
If this resonates, I recommend two related newsletters from favourite writers of mine that explore:
The strange sadness at the start of vacations as all the idyllic surroundings don’t necessarily assuage the internal rumblings, by Eleanor Mills at Queenager.
Caretaking of ageing moms with complicated, unspoken things going on under the relational surface with daughters - and a lot of poop. By Sari Botton of Oldster.
And, on the ongoing theme of daughters, why there are 530 novels with the title “The _______’s Daughter”, with astonishing data from author Emily St John Mandel.