Separating self and struggle

The search for identity beyond tragedy

By Melissa Langley - October 2, 2018
(Erica Stefano/ McGill Tribune)

After two and a half years of surgeries, chemotherapy, and dwindling odds, my mother died early on a Monday morning in November. My dad broke the news to my brother and me, and we went on a hike to the stream a few blocks from home while someone came to take away her body. The song of the ice-laced brook was the same as it had been for all of my 10 years, and the leaves ranged from umber, to scarlet, to sunflower yellow just as they did every autumn. When I returned to school on Wednesday, my desk in my fifth-grade classroom was still there, and all of my classmates looked the same as they had on Friday. My life, however, was irreparably changed, and I did not know where to focus all of the energy that had been spent before on hoping that my mom would get better. Almost 11 years later, my curly hair and dark eyes still mirror hers, but her influence as my mother and best friend runs much deeper.

After personal trauma or tragedy, forming a conception of oneself that is separate from the loss can be an arduous process. The dramatic shift in focus, goals, hopes, and relationships is jarring. The hours previously spent worrying, helping, or just living a normal life beg to be filled. More often than not, it isn’t as simple as rerouting this energy toward new outlets.

A letter by Chicago-based writer Amy Krouse Rosenthal published in The New York Times in March 2017 highlights another aspect of the relationship between trauma and identity: For many, post-traumatic identity is affected in part by feelings of guilt and responsibility to a deceased loved one. In her letter, Rosenthal addressed her husband’s hypothetical future wife. Diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer, Rosenthal hoped that her husband Jason would find meaning and joy after her death, even if that meant meeting someone new with whom to share his life. In June 2018, more than a year after Rosenthal’s death, her former husband responded to this letter with his own article in the Times, thanking his wife for her letter and her encouragement for his life after hers. The end of her letter featured an empty column, meant to symbolize his fresh start.

“Her edict to fill my own empty space with a new story has given me permission to make the most out of my remaining time on this planet,” Jason Rosenthal wrote.

The concept of posthumous loyalty and needing ‘permission’ to live freely often contribute to difficulties in establishing a new identity, especially when the deceased person occupied a singular role in the survivor’s life. A normative implication of words such as ‘wife’ or ‘mother’ is that only one person can fill that role.

In addition to experiencing guilt, many struggle with the need to continue sharing their lives with those they have lost. Marlee Nisenboim, U3 Arts, wrote a message to The McGill Tribune about the loss of her mother to colon cancer when she was 12 years old.

“The way I see my trauma shaping my identity most [is] that I feel things extremely deeply,” Nisenboim wrote. “When I am happy, I [am] extremely happy because of a desire to share my positive experiences with my mother, but [I am unable] to place these feelings anywhere since she is gone. And, when I am sad, I [am] extremely down because, again, I seek the support and assurance from my mother that everything will be okay. Since I cannot receive her support, it can be hard to pull myself out from the powerful feelings and respond to them in a way that will allow them to pass, as all feelings pass eventually.”

Though Nisenboim maintains faith in the fluid nature of these feelings, for her, the larger trauma is always present.

“I think that finding meaning and making sense of my trauma will always be a part of me and will never truly get resolved,” Nisenboim wrote.

Despite her bleak honesty regarding the unending effects of her loss, Nisenboim believes its effects extend further than sadness. While she could never see her mother’s death as something positive, it has made her more compassionate and understanding of others and has encouraged her to pursue a career working with children struggling with mental health. In this way, loss can shape identity beyond just leaving a gap: It can inspire personal growth and the desire to help others who have had similar experiences.

In an interview with The McGill Tribune, Israel Liquornik, a retired social worker living in Toronto, discussed trauma in the context of Christine Blasey Ford, who testified about her alleged sexual assault by United States Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh this past Thursday, Sept. 27. Liquornik explained that trauma victims experience healing by working through their trauma. As he watched the testimony, he felt that this process was potentially at work while Blasey Ford was on the stand.

“She only very partially dealt with her trauma, but, at the end, I think she is going to become much stronger with [having testified],” Liquornik said. “I think it’s going to help her to get much better. And then, one way that she tried to help in her self-identity [... is] that she selected to make it a profession and her life’s work as a psychologist.”

Abeer Almahdi, U2 Arts, shared Nisenboim’s sentiments regarding the permanence of trauma in an email to the Tribune. She continues to experience trauma from her assaults, which began at the age of 13.

“I’m constantly afraid of being taken advantage of,” wrote Almahdi. “Because these events affect me so much in my day to day life, they have become a part of me. I grew up with this trauma, so I can’t remember the feeling of anything else.”

Liquornik, too, commented on the reality of experiencing trauma at a young age and growing up with its impact. For much of his 45-year-long career, he worked in Child Protective Services and encountered some cases in which growing up as an adopted child involved a struggle to pinpoint self-identity.

“For a significant number of children that have been adopted, the question of who they are [is serious and difficult],” Liquornik said. “Very often, the child is of a different colour, a different ethnic background, a different culture than the adoptive parents. So, a lot of questions arise for the child that has been adopted, like ‘Who am I, really?’”

Furthermore, Liquornik explains that the way in which a child learns about their adoption can play a crucial and upending role in self-identity.

“[Adopted children] react to the way that the adopted parents deal, or refrain from dealing, with the question of the adoption,” Liquornik said. “So, all kinds of questions emerge that could make the child very anxious, and sometimes disturbed, about the whole question, [...] sometimes in ways that [slow] them down mentally and emotionally [while they] do the work of growing up. So, in that sense, it could be a trauma.”

The long-lasting effects of childhood or adolescent trauma are common to most survivor accounts. Almahdi’s experiences have made her fearful of scenarios in which she is vulnerable, particularly those in which she is alone or with someone she doesn’t know. While she struggles with emotional openness in the wake of her trauma, Almahdi explained that everyone reacts differently, even if they endure similar scenarios.

“For some, trauma can become empowering, [but], for others, it still cripples them to think about it,” Almahdi wrote.

Similarly, Liquornik acknowledged the potential upsides of a well-handled case of adoption.

“So, the way that [adoption] could become an asset in the long run is if [the adopted child doesn’t] suppress it or repress it, and problems and questions that come up are dealt with in a positive framework,” Liquornik said. “Let’s say, through counselling both of the child and the adoptive parents [and] education about the subject.”

The importance of constructively and positively handling cases of adoption, which have the potential to be traumatic, cannot be minimized. Regardless of the type or level of trauma, appropriate response is critical. After discussing how families can best handle adoption-related trauma, Liquornik elaborated on what this process looks like for the adopted child.

If the child deals with the trauma [...], they’re able to accept and tolerate the fact that they might not have an answer to all of their questions,” Liquornik said. “They might not be able to get more information [...] about their natural parents [....] They learn to cope and accept the fact that we can’t always answer very fully the questions, but it doesn’t take away from their personality or their growth or their achievements that they can make in life.”

Similarly, Almahdi reflected on the way in which some good has come of her experiences.

“I have such an amazing relationship with my mom, now, because of everything that we’ve both gone through,” Almahdi wrote. “We were able to bond so much more deeply after we both opened up to each other. There’s so much forgiveness that happens when you understand each other’s perspectives.”

Almahdi’s account is a testament to the bonds that can form between survivors and the way in which survivors create communities of love, support, and understanding. The #MeToo movement and reactions to Kavanaugh’s Senate hearing tell a similar story. Among many others, protestors holding signs in support of Blasey Ford and Anita Hill exemplify the importance of solidarity and community in victims’ recoveries and stories. In this case, believing and understanding others’ trauma can help survivors to heal.

While reactions, experiences, and coping mechanisms differ greatly, the fallout of trauma, be it negative or positive, is never simple nor short-lived.

Often times, those who have lost loved ones cite their loss as the catalyst for finding a deeper appreciation for life, family, and friends. They learn to savour every moment and live in the present. But, when I consider how my own identity has changed in light of my mom’s death, I don’t think about how much I love those who are still here. Nobody else is my mother, and nobody ever will be. My mother supported and understood me in a way that nobody else has, and I have missed her, wanted to talk to her, and wanted to remember her voice every day for the past 10 and half years.

"While reactions, experiences, and coping mechanisms differ greatly, the fallout of trauma, be it negative or positive, is never simple nor short-lived."

That does not mean, however, that I haven’t learned anything from the experience: I trust myself because of the independence and self-reliance I have gained, I am more empathetic than I was, and I know myself and my feelings more than I did when she was alive. When I stop and consider it, I recognize that these facets of myself are different than they once were and that losing her has a multitude of effects and implications— some of which are positive—on who I am. Still, I can’t yet shake the belief that a huge piece of my identity will always be not what I am nor what I have, but what I do not.