Monday, October 31, 2011

The Survivor's Burden

"This Ryan better be worth it. He'd better go home and cure some disease or invent a longer-lasting lightbulb or something."
- Capt. John Miller, Saving Private Ryan

Think of Private Ryan for a minute as though he were an actual person.  What a burden he had to carry all his life:  the unrealized hopes and aspirations of all his brothers.  The guilt he must have felt that he survived and they did not, and what all that those men who were sent to find him who didn't make it back with him?  I would think about that every time I watched that movie when the older Ryan kneels down in front of John Miller's headstone and tells him, "Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I've earned what all of you have done for me."  And I would ball my eyes out.  Not sure why, but that always really got to me.  That actor did the most with his small part, I thought, with the anxiety of trying to live a life worth saving registering even in his eyes - like maybe the real person knew a little bit about what his character was supposedly experiencing. 

Now, however, I can feel for that poor man on an even deeper level because I know individuals who have the burden of being survivors.  No one trudged through wartime France to rescue them, but they know about carrying the weight and responsibility of not being quite able to live their lives for their own sake.  There is always that little extra thought creeping into almost anything they do.  If you have a great day, a little voice inside your head needles you and asks, "So, why am I allowed to be here for this great day?"  If you get a unique opportunity, that same voice comes back around and whispers, "You got this and your [sister, brother, father...] didn't.  Are you sure you deserve it?"

And, then there's always the burden to account for yourself.  Any where from the teensy-tiny little details about not freaking your family out by not being late for anything, to the larger issue of not screwing up and placing yourself at risk.  I've mentioned before, I get paranoid when I don't know where the rest of my family is at any given time.  Greg, who works in the middle of the night, has to text me if he's going to be late after a few tense days when he wasn't back home at the usual time.   For Marissa, the burden is harder and larger, and I recognize that and try so hard not to add to it, but I think it's always right there, bubbling below the surface.  She is young, and this is the time in her life where she's supposed to do young people things and make young adult mistakes.  It's how you learn.  But, when she inevitably tests that water, the anxiety for everybody shoots through the roof.

What you realize is that not only do you have to fight through your own personal grief, a family dynamic naturally shifts and there is an added intertwining responsibility that everybody has to shoulder and figure out how to adjust to.  Suddenly, there is no illusion that life is anything more than horribly fragile.  You look at your children or your spouse and know that at any moment, one of them could be gone.   You knew it before on a purely intellectual level.  But, now you know it deep in your heart and in your bones.  You feel it like a painful ache every time one of them walks out the door without you.  So, how do you react to that?  What is the right way to react to that?  Hard, complicated questions to answer.

The irony is, the increased concern over the family strains the family dynamic, so you have to guard against over-reacting.  I've read so many stories about surviving children being estranged from their parents, which initially struck me as odd.  Now I get it - the parent maybe gets too clingy and the child can't take that added to the natural survivor's guilt, so they break away.  And, from the parent/other spouse perspective, it's easier when they're not right there.  When I came up here alone for the first few months, I worried constantly, but I wasn't right there to needle them, so Greg and Marissa had some breathing room to live their lives.  Ignorance sometimes really is bliss.  I'm sure there are other extremes:  those cases where the parent can no longer parent at all - too lost in their own grief.

For us, the best way I can describe life as it is now is that someone came along and shook our world like it was a snow-globe.  And they shook that sucker hard.  When all the little flakes finally settle back down they are in different places from where they were before.  And we can't change that back.  So, after that major shake-up we're left a little dizzy and disoriented for a time, and getting that balance back is a constant challenge.  This is one more aspect to that challenge:  how to allow each of us to live a life without guilt and shame because we carry on and Kelsey does not.

To my mind, it's not fair to add that burden onto your loved ones.  They don't owe you anything extra because they are alive and another family member is not.  For whatever reason.  But, on the other hand, if you're a member of a family who has suffered a loss, be gentle and understanding with them and understand the depth of their concern and be careful to check in a little more often than you otherwise would.  And maybe take it easy on any bungee jumping, snowboarding or Nascar racing for a while.

Saving Private Ryan, 1998 (Amblin Entertainment, DreamWorks SKG)

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