Elizabeth Edwards’ gift and one of the reasons why the nation mourns her death is she showed the healing that comes after a trauma when you build a narrative of what it means. People looked to Elizabeth as a role model, and most importantly her children needed her to find a way to get past her disappointment and to make sense of what betrayal and infidelity means.  She was courageous enough to tell a nuanced story. 

Of course, we will never know her most private thoughts. As a public person and writer, you always choose what you are willing to share. I am aware of how important it is to be authentic and honest, but also kind as I wrote a memoir, In Her Wake, examining a controversial family story.

My mother had an affair and divorced my father. She died by suicide when I was four years old after she lost custody of her children.  I am a child psychiatrist , mother and daughter. I spent 18 years trying to understand this story. 

When I was younger, I looked to blame someone for my mother’s death, and I felt ashamed. Divorce, affairs, suicide often can generate  in those left behind a need to understand by assigning blame. Shame surrounds  these type of events as children struggle around what to say. 

But from the outside, it looked like Elizabeth Edwards chose to hold her husband accountable while forgiving him enough not to fight a battle where she wouldn’t be around to win. She made meaning by degrees as we do all of our lives. She also chose to take the upheaval in her life as an opportunity for repair. Her suffering was organized, and she worked through it so that she could build a story as she saw it and wished to be seen by others. 

I imagine Elizabeth Edwards’ children will be left with unanswered questions as in any trauma. But she left behind a gift. They have her words and the respect she garnered from her intense desire to make sense of a setback, a nakedness that revealed vulnerability.

As a parent now, I know that my closest times with my children are when they see how I maneuver when I am trying to be strong when I am hurt.  My prayer for all children who have lost someone they lost is that they come to have the comfort that love lasts longer than death. 

Nancy Rappaport 2010

Nancy Rappaport

Nancy Rappaport is the author of In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother’s Suicide (September 2009, Basic Books). She is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She is attending child and adolescent psychiatrist at Harvard Teaching affiliate Cambridge Health Alliance, where she is also Director of School Based-programs with a focus on servicing youths, families, and staff in public schools.

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