Two weeks before my thirteenth birthday, my mother committed suicide. I was raised by my grandparents, but I was also close with her. She was a troubled person who struggled with demons I didn’t understand. But she was also, funny, beautiful and creative. When she died, it felt like a piece of me died with her.
Two years later, tragedy struck again. My grandfather died of a brain aneurysm. He was my dad in every way that counts. He made me breakfast, took me on bike rides, helped me with my homework, taught me how to program in BASIC…and was just there. Then he was gone.
It felt like the sun had pulled from the sky.
All my life, I’ve seen these two childhood tragedies in terms of how bad they were. And they were bad. There’s nothing quite like losing a parent. Losing two in such a short timespan, well, it’s indescribable.
There’s general agreement that such losses are harmful for children. In fact, when I first was hospitalized following my accident, the doctor told me that my chronic pain and illness could all be traced back to my mother’s suicide.
I knew she was wrong—that this was a medical problem, not something psychological. But I didn’t question the idea that what I’d been through as a teenager had messed me up.
I now see that she had that wrong as well.
Resilience and loss
Every once in a while you read a book that makes you rethink everything about your life. This is what happened when I stumbled on “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.”
Written by Malcolm Gladwell, author of “The Tipping Point,” it’s about how the way we look at what will make us stronger or better often turns out to be wrong.
Here’s the part that leapt out at me:
“In the 1950s, while studying a sample of famous biologists, the science historian Anne Roe had remarked in passing on how many had at least one parent who died while they were young.”
Other researchers kept finding the same pattern. A number of groundbreaking poets and writers, including Keats Wordsworth, Coleridge, Swift, Edward Gibbon, and Thackeray had also lost one or both parents before the age of fifteen. It even applied to politicians, including George Washington and Barack Obama.
Here’s Gladwell on psychologist Dean Simonton, who has studied the phenomenon of parental loss:
Gifted children … have “inherited an excessive amount of psychological health.”
This is good in many ways, but it doesn’t seem to lead them into being innovative. They’re “too conventional, too obedient, too unimaginative, to make the big time with some revolutionary idea,” wrote Simonton.
I was (and still am) a lot of not great things—impulsive, self centered, argumentative and prone to overestimating my abilities. But “conventional, obedient and unimaginative” I am not.
Yet, looking back, I was all of that before those twin tragedies struck. I got straight As, joined honor society, and otherwise did everything by the book.
Afterwards, I became a screw up. I drank, partied, and slept around. I dropped out of high school halfway through my junior year, instead taking classes at the local college, Vassar. My history teacher told me I was making the biggest mistake of my life.
He was wrong. I ended up becoming a fulltime student at Vassar. After graduation I embarked on an adventurous life. I ran a successful business doing PR and writing for high tech companies. I also wrote short stories, novels, and a memoir.
I now wonder, would I have followed such a path if I hadn’t lost my parents? Or, would I have taken a safe route, like corporate law?
Early traumas prepare you for what happens later in life. In my case, I’ve never given up trying to piece together what’s wrong with me.
I’ve tapped into a community of chronically ill people who are pushing the envelope—trying new treatments and sharing knowledge. I wonder, had things been easier in childhood, would I be doing this? Or would I be accepting the doctors’ wrong explanations?
Gladwell quotes the playwright George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
The lotus and you
Most of us think of the bad stuff that happens to us as, well, bad. But without such tragedies, we would never have had Keats’s poetry or the Affordable Care Act.
As the Zen master Yakuzan said: “Like the lotus flower, we rise from the mud, bloom out of the darkness and radiate out into the world.”
Whether it’s loss of a parent, illness, or something else, this is the “mud” that pushes us to do something with our lives. Recognizing this is power.
I’d always figured that my life turned out as it did in spite of what I went through. Now, I see it’s because of it.
That might not seem like a great insight. Try it yourself. You’ll see your life transforming before your eyes.
Think of the phrase Simonton used, “an excessive amount of psychological health.” It’s wonderful to be gifted with that, but the rest of us have come through with something else.
No matter what you’ve been through, chances are it led you places you would never have gotten to any other way. Instead of seeing how the bad stuff messed you up, look at it in terms of how strong, resilient or creative it made you.
You’re not the same as you were before. But that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing.
I would never wish those parental losses on anyone. I also wouldn’t wish the suffering I’ve been through since my accident on anyone. But all that “mud” has made me into the person I am now.
The same goes for you.