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My Year of Dying: Lessons Learned

Not only with the glorious birth of my own two children, but also as a pediatrician who has attended many a middle of the night deliveries, I can attest to the profoundly transformative power of witnessing a new life enter the world. In what I have come to refer to as my year of dying— when in less than 9 months when I saw my father, mother-in-law, and mother make the transition in the other direction —I learned the deep sense of love and connection that can come with the end of life. Or not.

A Necessary Mourning

Our world today appears locked in the iron grip of what many refer to as generational trauma. I wonder if a more apt and descriptive term might be unprocessed and unintegrated loss. A psychoanalyst colleague often said, “All emotional suffering is about loss, and all healing is about mourning.”  The Persian poet Rumi expressed a similar sentiment in the aphorism "The cure for the pain is the pain."

My Father’s Story: Before the Holocaust

While I hadn't yet mentioned the movie, my father told me of the radio announcers' frequent refrain of "all quiet on the Western front" while "hundreds young men were slaughtered every day." His voice trembled: his face contorted in an effort to contain the flood of emotion. He repeated the phrase in the original German."Im Westen Nichts Neues" or "Nothing new in the West." When I shared that we had just seen the movie, tears ran down his cheek. He opened himself to expression of feelings so deeply hidden for so long.

Getting to Know You: Babies and the Origin of Negative Capability

Practicing in the time before hospitalists, my on-call duties included examining all babies shortly after birth. In the room with parents and their newborn time melted away: all the outside routine pressures of my life disappeared. The inconvenience of sleep disruption when called to a middle-of-the night c-section paled in comparison to the power of riding the elevator from the first floor OR of our small hospital to the third-floor nursery with a new father gazing in wonder at his baby in the isolette. I saw again and again how a newborn baby brings us into the present moment like nothing else. For them there is only “now.”

Early Relational Health: Preventing Intergenerational Transmission of Shame

Guilt can be a normal and healthy emotional experience. “I’m guilty” can also mean “I’m responsible.” Shame, in contrast is always pathological, and can have destructive effects on emotional development. But without an opportunity to hear the family story, it is impossible to distinguish between the two. Knowing Paul’s story, we can understand it as a kind of intergenerational transmission of shame. Isabel’s sad feelings and expressions of low self-esteem were a communication of distress at an environment of rage, directed both at her and between her parents. One can understand her behavior not as an illness but as an adaptive effort to change the situation.

Confronting Terror: The Power of Human Connection

In March of 2020, we were all collectively faced with an invisible yet terrifying threat. The group including fellows, faculty, and luminaries held each other over countless messy moments of uncertainty and loss. The result was a profound sense of connection and trust that fueled the explosion of creativity brought forth in their work. The impact will change the lives of infants and families throughout the world for years to come.