“Have patience that is all unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like closed rooms, like books written like a foreign language.” ~Rainer Maria Rilke
I started thinking about a distant relative on a walk in the woods. I had thought about her more often when she suddenly stopped speaking to our family, well over a decade ago. I would reach out to her through email, but after not hearing back over the years, I thought about her less and less and eventually stopped trying to connect with her.
On this particular walk, I began to think of a common theme in my family where we can go years without talking and wondered how that legacy originated and has been passed on through the generations.
I thought about Christmas Day, when I was a child watching my mother cry begging her sister on the phone to talk to her. I never did learn the details of why they didn’t talk.
I’ve heard stories of my grandmother and her sister not talking for decades until the end of their life, when they forgot the past and moved on. Nobody told me why, and from what I understand, they even forgot what transpired to decades lost.
It reminds me of the time that I stood at my father’s desk as a little girl trying to talk to him, but there was no answer. I thought that I did something wrong, and whatever it was, I told myself that it was my fault.
I’ve heard stories over the years of my father and his sister not talking and then reuniting years before he passed away. They both loved each other dearly at the time of his death.
This reminds me of my own familial relationships. When people get mad in my family, or if you make a mistake or go against the norm, they ice you out for weeks, months, and often years. I’ve also learned to go quiet and stop engaging as a way to care for myself and protect myself from the pain, confusion, and heartache. Often there is no avenue to communicate anyway. I’ve learned it is better to keep quiet and keep the pain close and private than the deal with the fallout of trying to communicate.
So, on this particular day, for no special reason that I knew of other than she came to mind in the quiet and magic of the woods, I texted her to let her know that I was thinking of her.
She responded immediately.
“What made you reach out?” she asked.
“I was thinking of you and wanted you to know that I loved you,” I replied.
“This means more to me than you know,” she replied. “Would you ever consider talking?” she asked.
I replied, “Of course.”
“How should we start?” she asked.
I said, “Let’s just pick up the phone and start there.”
We made a date for a few days later to talk.
I learned in that conversation that she was in a crisis, a full-blown meltdown; the rug had been pulled out from underneath her. She had nowhere to live, and the one person who was center in her life was not well. She hadn’t slept in days and was scared that the place she considered home wasn’t an option any longer, nor safe.
As I listened to the details of the sad, disappointing, and devastating loss she’d experienced in the past few months, I could hear her panic, fear, and desperation.
Underneath the panic, worry, and grief, I heard her sweet and soothing voice that I often turned to in my twenties for guidance. I felt that part of my heart that missed her and wished that she had been a part of my life for the past years. Yet, in those hours of our first conversation, I knew that something had changed; something was different.
She was fifteen years older, which would now make her seventy-seven years old.
Between her taking notes of what I said, forgetting words to explain certain details, and seeming generally confused, my intuition told me there was something else happening.
We began talking every day, and when I saw that she didn’t have anywhere to go and needed in-person support, I reached out to my family and enlisted their help due to proximity of where she lived.
In just a few weeks, we managed to eventually get her to my mom’s home, where she could settle, feel safe, and get her bearings. We could also get a better sense if my intuition was accurate.
She arrived at my mom’s home by a sheer miracle and divine interventions: phone calls that served as a map app, hotels with no vacancies, and finally an airplane trip my brother-in-law made to pick her up and drive her to safety.
After a few days, I learned that what I had sensed was true. Yes, the rug had been pulled out from underneath her and life felt as if it were crumbling, but she was also experiencing early signs of memory loss, confusion, and cognitive delays that were not necessarily symptoms of the stress.
I received a call from someone that questioned me and challenged me for being so forgiving when she’d just vanished and didn’t want to be a part of our lives for years. I haven’t thought of myself as forgiving, but merely understanding.
What I have come to understand in my adult years is that people shut down, withdraw, or go quiet as a form of protection. It’s a way to survive, to keep it all together, but most importantly, it’s a way to shield ourselves from pain and hurt that is hard to feel or give language to.
As a young girl, I internalized that when people didn’t talk to me, I’d done something to cause it; that it must have been me. I can still get paralyzed with the fear of causing a rupture in a relationship with someone that I love.
Sometimes the pain is so great that it leaves me breathless, unable to speak. I’ve gone quiet with my mother for many years of my adult life, my sisters, and my extended family. I also see it in others in my family who shut down and don’t talk.
We create stories about the people that don’t talk. They are ice cold; they are punishing and selfish.
I just don’t see it that way.
I learned that when my father couldn’t talk, he was in a great deal of pain that stemmed back to losing his mother at a young age with no warning that she was ill, even though his father knew. No one ever spoke about the loss of his mother, and yet he shared that he yearned for motherly love. My dad had a sweet and tender heart that was broken.
I learned that my dad didn’t have the words to talk, express, and emote because often our families who came before us, that they were born into, didn’t have the privileges of therapy, support groups, psychological books, or any other form of self-help or understanding of child development or the psyche. Often, the generations before us were surviving. There wasn’t space to allow for feelings; they learned to shut down their pain and not talk.
I learned from my mother’s side of the family that pain and feelings aren’t spoken about. You don’t share or give language to hurt; you shut it down. But when you shut it down, it often comes out sideways and it’s hard to tell what is what.
When children grow up in environments where they can’t feel, it has long-lasting implications on their hearts. They wonder: Do I have the right to feel? Is something wrong with me? How can I make this go away? Can I trust what I am feeling? What’s the best way to shut this down?
My mother also lost her dad in high school. All she wanted was to get away and be free from the pain. But when I ask her questions to learn more, she can’t totally remember her motivations except to stay she wanted to leave.
In the little details I have about the other spells of not talking, underneath all of them was hurt, pain, and disappointment that goes back in time through the generations.
While it hurts when people cut off communication and can feel completely personal, there is often a mixture of causes and conditions that have very little to do with us personally. There is something tender that got touched, that they haven’t had air or space to be with. The person is reacting to that history of pain rather than us completely.
And when we decide to cut off communication or go quiet, the same is true for us. We, too, have tender places that have been exiled off that haven’t had time and space for the heartbreak to be felt.
Sometimes it can make all the difference to reach out from a place of care and curiosity, even if it’s just to say, “Thinking of you.” And sometimes we just need to be patient while they work through their pain and get to a place where they’re comfortable opening up again.
Healing heartbreak is a lifelong process that ebbs and flows. There isn’t a timeline. There isn’t a destination. There are causes and conditions that are seen and unseen that help us along the way.
I see that love is the cure. I see this with the woman I called in the woods. I see this with my own broken heart.
Love the causes and conditions that each heart holds that are unseen by the other. Love the complexity of our own hearts that we may not fully understand.
Simply love the mystery of human beings and all the heart holds from the generations before us that did their best.