As my mouth slowly curved upwards to kiss the tears trickling down my cheek, I closed my eyes and looked for Mom in my soul, heart and memory–those places I knew she’d always be. It had been 4 years since Mom died from heart disease in 2005. One night, an unusual memory of Mom found me. And it transformed how I thought about everything. Having just moved to London, UK, for my PhD, I had already lived another 4 years since Mom died from heart disease in 2005. One night, in my cosy yet cramped dorm room, I felt rather homesick. Suddenly, I remembered a sweet, yet unusual memory of Mom and I.
I was roughly 4 years old, snuggly resting in my “blankey” at bedtime at the bottom of a bunk bed. My Mom came to tuck me in. Then, I took out my digital notebook and quickly started typing it down.
Here’s the memory I wrote that night:
Softly, Mom said to me,“Do not think of anything. Just go to sleep, and do not think of anything”. From then on, no matter how mom felt, or what else was burdening or saddening her heart, no matter what fears, anxieties, or pains she housed in deep secret, she hid it all behind a kiss on my forehead as she tucked me in to sleep.
I didn’t know why she was sad. But somehow, Mom’s sweet bedtime tune mostly eased my worries about her. Even so, I was a sensitive, empathic 4-year-old kid, and I knew there was something more painful behind her sweetly hummed melody. But I did not know what. And perhaps, I knew, I might not ever find out.
No matter how much love I felt from the intimacy of Mom’s kiss or the serenity of her tucking me in beneath my warm, secure, blanket, I also felt a subtle, strange distance keep our hearts apart. I did not know what was happening, but all I heard was a secret silence behind the happy tune that she hummed all too clearly out of her love for me.”
Remembering this has made a profound impact on me in the course of my life.
To be quite honest, I’m not sure how much of this is “factual” or a composition of fragments containing a mixture of fact, heartfelt dreams and imagination.
Even so, it’s a memory that continues to resonate in every part of my being.
Somehow, this memory influenced how I understood my mom, my relationship with her, and how I connected with my own identity.
How can that be so?
Of what benefit is a memory that blurs between fact and fiction?
It’s a great question. And how you embrace/love, resist/shoot down, or thoughtfully reflect on the rest of my discussion depends on, I believe, the value you place on the power of imagination and memory on our daily encounters and mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.
The Power of Dreams, Imagination & Memory
There’s something powerful about how our dreams and imagination affect our sleep quality, how we wake up in the morning, and how we go about our everyday life.
In fact, I believe dreams can actually reveal “truths” and “insights” about what’s been going on in your day, your life, your history, what you’re battling with or working through Monday through Sunday.
Moreover, the “stuff” of imagination, myth and dreams can bring healing to our hurts, stir our souls, and revive us from the worst heartbreak.
In his classic book, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1962), Carl Jung argues that: “To the intellect, all my mythologizing is futile speculation. To the emotions, however, it is a healing and valid activity; it gives existence a glamour [Glanz] which we would no like to do without. Nor is there any good reason why we should” (p. 300-301)
In my case, on the day that I remembered this “memory” of Mom, it genuinely uncovered a lot of truths and insights that I needed to know—that I needed to feel and experience through my own healing process of grief.
For example, the memory reminded me of other childhood memories of Mom—ones that felt much vaguer…You know the ones—the memories that you sometimes fight so desperately for, to remember those you loved and lost.
Sometimes, I want to vividly re-live that complete memory.
I want to breathe it, experience its colours, shades, textures, scents and sounds.
Since I can’t, that’s why a memory like the one I’ve shared here is so powerful to me.
Because that memory reminded me of what I confidently knew to be true in my life.
It’s a memory I needed. I needed to remember how I was raised in the tender embrace of someone so bold in her own heartbreaking vulnerability.
I needed to remember how this courageous woman loved me enough through her own pain to become my Mom.
It was a feeling I most needed to remember in that terribly homesick moment in London:
- That my mom dearly loved me and was present with me in a different way.
- My mom demonstrated her love by tucking me in bed, singing or humming songs to me.
In essence, I needed to both receive love and offer love in return as a new act of grieving and mourning.
Therefore, I received love through memory of her words and actions.
Then, I offered love back to mom through my empathy of her own painful silences.
Indeed, imagining, “remembering”, dreaming, and re-experiencing the beauty of this “memory” is absolutely powerful because of the truths it reminds me of.
Through all that personal healing, I did find myself quite surprised to “remember” something quite unusual in that memory: a haunting silence that revealed untold stories and hidden losses from my Mom’s life…fragments of history that I only learned soon after she passed away.
Now, there’s also a lot about this memory that’s quite sweet and sad.
But it’s the silence that oddly sticks with me.
The Haunting Silence of History
There’s a strange importance in the silence; a haunting potency in what was left unsaid.
The “gaps” that exist within Mom’s story (and my memory) speak of a silence that weeps what cannot be spoken.
In fact, I believe that this silence, inexplicably, contains many personal secrets, traumas and losses that mom held and carried within her body, mind and soul.
As loving mothers do, perhaps she was protecting me (and herself) by never talking about them and keeping that silence.
Now, I don’t know all the personal details in Mom’s history, nor do I really know how tough it must have been for her through all her painful losses.
But with this silence, all I’m left with are questions.
- How do we “work-through” or understand a silence like that?
- How do we understand all this, when “silence” is strangely found in an experience that exists as a strange union of memory, dream, wish, history and emotional experience?
- How do we work-through this challenge of honouring a story about a loss that “has no name”?
In her powerful and poignant book, Haunting of the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War, Professor Grace Cho’s sociological research on the Korean diaspora explores the nature of “historical” silence. These are silences that reveal traumas that are very much a part of our personal and familial history. The strange thing is this: we may not always know exactly what this trauma is. Or even if we have some idea of how it might express itself in our lives, it’s difficult to locate, identify or trace. But we nonetheless experience this—we feel them—through the senses, emotions and unconscious.
We even experience and feel them across generations of our families.
Intergenerational trauma is a huge and deeply important topic, and it’s one that I believe plays into this memory of mom and my own ups and downs of life. But I dive into that in other blog posts and academic publications. My own research focuses on perspectives like how trauma “transmits” across generations through affect and the unconscious. But I’ll be writing more soon on some of the exciting intergenerational links that I’ve been learning about in genetics and neurobiology. In upcoming weeks, I’ll also speak more about intergenerational trauma from the perspective of ancient wisdom and spiritual perspectives from both mainline faith traditions and indigenous spirituality
I felt heartbroken imagining-perhaps speculating-on the grief that my Mom must have experienced. Some might wonder, “why bother”? But for me, it wasn’t a futile exercise. It was an opportunity to re-connect with someone I deeply loved and who also loved me. It was a chance to deepen the spiritual bond between my dear mother and I. It was also an important way to better understand my own origin story, and how I might also learn how to integrate my mother’s braveness and bold vulnerability into my own identity.
Through my PhD research, I do believe that I’ve pieced together some fragments from the overarching socio-political contexts surrounding Mom’s own personal story; nightmarish historical records and shocking testimonies from the Second World War within the Asia-Pacific regions.
But there’s still a lot in Mom’s story that I’d have to leave to speculation.
Nonetheless, I believe that I’ve learned a lot through my mom’s silence—at least, in how I remember it.
We Share In the Experience of Grief
Each of our losses are unique—nobody else can ever live your unique story.
Just as my mom’s tale was hers alone to tell or leave unsaid, so are the words I choose to share or leave out in my own writing.
Even with the reality that neither of us can imagine what the other has experienced—we nonetheless connect on the level of pain.
Through all of our individual experiences of unique losses, pains, crucibles and crosses—the experience of grief is universal in our human experience.
After all, you know what terrible hurt and loss feel like in your story.
I also know what terrible hurt and loss feel like in my story.
It’s okay to not feel okay sometimes.
Grief comes with the deal of this privilege to live out our stories here on this planet Earth, even when it sometimes doesn’t feel like much of a bargain at all.
Yet, I’m convinced that, when we are ready, there can be many gifts from grief for you and me to discover.
How We Choose to Grieve Powerfully Affects Us
I can only imagine what my Mom’s unique story must have really been like. Though I can never know, I connect with that through my own heartaches, traumas, the challenges and losses I have not yet encountered, and the countless details to my story that I cannot share as publicly.
Indeed, if we have the privilege we share the experience of having suffered unbearable pain, the experience of celebrating a life boldly lived, and the joyful privilege of once having loved, the gift of receiving that same love, and, of course, the agony of refusing their early goodbyes.
Grieving, remembering, and honouring our pain and our joys are never easy. Whether we describe our memories of passed loved ones as poignant and bittersweet, beautiful and sad—or indeed with the whole spectrum of our deepest feelings—how we choose to grieve and mourn, powerfully affects how we see our ourselves now, tomorrow, and even yesterdays.
Reflection Question: If you feel ready to, kindly comment on what ways you have chosen to honour the memory of a loved one? (e.g. writing, making or building something, music etc).
Cho, Grace M. Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War. Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008
Jung, Carl G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Pantheon Books: 1963.
To, Nathan M.L. The Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma Through Mediated, Distributed Vision in 2nd Generation Canadian Chinese Experience. PhD Dissertation. Goldsmiths, University of London, New Cross, London, United Kingdom. Supervisor: Dr. Lisa Blackman. 2013.