How often do we truly see beloved relatives as the individuals that lie beneath the surface of their familiar faces? A recent visit with a niece attending graduate school on the other side of the country taught me an important lesson about family communication and lost generational connections.
It is a lesson that ties to a conversation with my brother about questions we wished we could ask our dad, a World War II veteran who fought on Okinawa and returned home with his wartime memories tucked deeply away. My brother and I, like most Baby Boomers, are children of a war veteran who was reluctant to speak of his past and the associated feelings that such conversations might surface.
Dutiful Dads and Hidden Dreams
Yet it wasn’t only our dad’s recollections of conflict that we wanted to know. Before the war, he had studied to become an accountant, but when the war ended, family circumstances led to a different tour of duty — supporting his new father-in-law’s struggling small retail business. And like the pattern of so many people’s lives, his dream of pursuing a career that complemented his skills took a back seat to an obligation that matched neither his strongest abilities nor his own goals.
Our dad died suddenly before his 73rd birthday, leaving behind a deeply devoted family grieving his death. I increasingly realize how much our sorrow at his premature passing is tied nearly as much to our loss of the dad we did not know, as it is to the wonderful dad we did.
Meeting the Person Within the Relative
But silence and buried feelings are not the province of those who grew up in the privations of the Depression and World War II. My too-short visit with my niece was a reminder of how easily we can love family members without knowing who they are as individuals.
Unlike prior times together, my niece and I were not surrounded by the distractions of multiple generations and the din of activity. There was no food to cook, babies to engage, or activities to plan. I traveled from my coast to hers for a professional association meeting and we both carved out time to get together.
She joined my group’s dinner, bravely facing the many questions that would be inevitable from senior professionals happy to inquire about the studies and prodigious travel of an engaging student. Suddenly, the little girl I hardly knew was a young woman who answered multiple questions with grace and intelligence. The goals she expressed for her own future were in concert with the experiences and world view of my colleagues who were her parents’ age. I felt joy in having the opportunity to see her in a new light as I learned of the professional she hopes to become.
Later, as she drove me back to my hotel, she asked about my work as a speaker and writer focused on the ways in which institutional impediments in the workplace can thwart careers of women and minorities. She shared experiences that demonstrated the challenges each new generation of women continue to face.
Our conversation then turned to family and our mutual reflections that revealed the complexity of interactions even among people who deeply love each other. In essence, the evening provided a rare gift of time to listen and learn from one another. It also pointed out how little we knew about each other’s lives outside of family interactions.
Moving Past the Restrictions of Our Roles
Our conversation, and associated feelings about my dad, reinforced how even the closest of families may find that as children enter adulthood and parents face the challenges of growing older, the time to connect is precious. The tasks of everyday life may keep us from taking time to see each other as people with hopes and aspirations, regardless of years.
Within our families, we are generally defined by our titles — grandparent, parent, spouse, child, cousin, aunt, uncle. These are roles to be cherished, to be sure. But we are all more than our relational designations.
It behooves all of us to ask: how well do I know those to whom I am closest? Even as there is much to be grateful for in raucous family gatherings, there is a special joy in finding the quiet moments to learn about the individuals behind the familial title.
The faces we know so well may hide a depth of unspoken thoughts and feelings. Sharing them with people we love, hearing and being heard, is a priceless gift.
My brother and I try to fill in the gaps of our dad’s life, piecing together stories, letters, and photos now in our possession. He filled his role as dad with grace, humor, needed advice, and ever-present kindness. We only wish we knew more of the person behind the title of dad that he treasured so well.
We have much to learn from and understand about each other, regardless of age. Without mindful intervention, we risk perpetuating a legacy of silence that robs each generation of the chance to learn from both the wisdom and the vulnerabilities of cherished family members.
Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, is passionate about changing workplace culture to promote respect, inclusion, and engagement, bringing that vision to her speaking, training, and consulting work. She is the author of four books, including the recently released, The Shield of Silence: How Power Perpetuates a Culture of Harassment and Bullying in the Workplace, as well as You Raised Us, Now Work With Us: Millennials, Career Success, and Building Strong Workplace Teams.
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