Dear Dr. Yael:
I love my father, a Holocaust survivor.
Throughout my childhood and during my married life, my father never spoke about his experiences during the war. I am now a grandmother, and he is, Baruch Hashem, a great-grandfather.
Suddenly, he decided to share his horrific war experiences with his 11-year-old great-grandson, our oldest grandchild. (Apparently, my father is only relaying his experiences to the 11-year-old, as he was 11 during the war.) This has led to our grandson having nightmares.
I asked my father to communicate his stories to my siblings and me and to his married grandchildren – but not to his young great-grandchildren. My father says that my grandson is mature enough to hear these stories since he lived through this Gihenom at the same age.
I do not understand my father. Throughout my life he hardly spoke about anything; suddenly he feels the need to tell my grandchild the gory details of the war years. In our opinion, our young grandson cannot handle these stories.
My father feels a close kesher with this child, who carries the name of his father (also a survivor). While I agree with my father that it is important for our children to know what happened to our people, I think this child is too sensitive at this stage in his life to deal with this. Do you have any advice for us?
While it is important to share what happened during the Holocaust with future generations, you are correct that your grandson may not yet be ready to hear about the atrocities. It sounds as if your father, through identifying with your grandson, is going through a healing process of sorts by rewriting the outcome of his trauma. In order for individuals to work through trauma, they must sometimes relive it in a controlled setting. Perhaps this is what your father is subconsciously doing, feeling it is more opportune to change that ending with your grandson but not with you or his married grandchildren. It appears, though, that this is not healthy for your grandson. This indeed places you in a difficult predicament.
Does your father tell your grandson his stories when you or someone else is around? If not, maybe you can monitor your grandson’s visits with your father, ensuring that someone else is always there. It is possible that your father is unable to stop telling these stories by his own accord, as he may feel a pressing need to do so. Therefore, it may not help to talk to him about this situation.
I suggest that one of your older children spend more time with your father, giving him a chance to confide more in him or her. Or, if you can handle the traumatic details, he can speak with you. While it is likely therapeutic for your father to speak with someone about what he went through, he should not be traumatizing – however inadvertently – your 11-year-old grandson.
Survivors often suppress the trauma they endured during the Holocaust, pushing those memories to the back of their minds. This permits distance from the terror and grief and allows them to move on and embrace their new lives. But this can be problematic later in life. The many years they spent repressing the horrors removes the ability to emotionally process their feelings and then move past the horrors. This repression worked for many Holocaust survivors, but the past often catches up with them. When that happens, all survivors eventually need to talk about their past in order for them to mend psychologically. This may be where your father currently is.
It is possible that your father is attempting to transfer his wartime experiences in the direction of your 11-year-old grandson since he was the same age when he endured them. Although I understand his subconscious need to do this, your grandchild thankfully has a normal life and should not be subjected to his great-grandfather’s painful memories. His nightmares attest to this point.
Remember these points: Your father seems to be in need of healing; he is striving to accomplish this by finally sharing his stories. It is important that you do not try to stop him from talking about his encounters, only that you alter the audience. In this realm, consider suggesting having him join a support group or, if necessary, seek some psychotherapy in an effort to deal effectively with his issues. And do your best to make sure that he continues to talk about his painful experiences. This will increase the odds for success in his healing process. Hatzlachah!
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