Conditional Living With Loss in a Postcolonial World

By Basma Deef

Contemporary psychiatric care is cognisant of how the effects of trauma can be lifelong as well as intergenerational, especially as a substantial consequence of western colonial capitalist policy. The study of intergenerational trauma as a discourse is widely studied within Indigenous communities that were subjected to residential schools, and government policies that targeted them resulting in the establishment of intergenerational trauma. In Krista Maxwell’s Historicizing Historical Trauma Theory: Troubling the Transgenerational Transmission paradigm, she defines intergenerational trauma as,

“proponents of historical trauma have proposed a wide range of mechanisms by which it may be transmitted across generations: “biological (including hereditary predispositions to PTSD), culture (through story-telling, culturally sanctioned behaviours), social (through inadequate parenting, lateral violence, acting out of abuse, and psychological (through memory processes)” (Maxwell 2014:408).

The intergenerational trauma proponent that I want to focus on specifically is trauma passed down biologically and socially within a family. Western infrastructure does not provide adequate care and rehabilitation for recipients of intergenerational trauma. This trickled down stress disorder is the subject of my paper and the premise of why I wanted to interview this informant. I interrogated how traumatic life events, such as the sudden loss of a loved one, trickle down intergenerationally, especially if that loved one chose to take their own life. What methods are used within the family unit to prevent further violence and how do family members facilitate happiness and harmony within the family? How did moving to Canada and inheriting the historical trauma of being on the land of people who resemble the colonizers who ravaged through Somalia in your formative years affect the informant and their worldview? How does this also add to individual experiences of trauma on a micro level along with collective trauma of trying to decolonize your mind, body and spirit?

I began to think about these processes when my informant told me that his first wife the mother of my two eldest siblings, suddenly took her own life. He described her suicide as one that came as a shock, that did not have any instances that may have alluded to her making that decision. He made a conscious decision to conceal this information from his children for years before he decided to tell them two years ago. He worked for an oil corporation as a financial consultant in the United Arab Emirates for seventeen years before he decided to change careers and move to Baghdad, Iraq as a consultant for the United State’s Department of Defense. After the death of his wife in 1984, he was left with his six-year-old son, distraught after witnessing his mother taking her own life, and his new born daughter. With the help of his mother who left their hometown in Somalia to come to take care of her grandchildren, he was able to land on his feet after burying his wife. I recruited the informant after having a conversation about the ethnography we were reading in class: Jocelyn Chua’s In Pursuit of the Good Life: Aspiration and Suicide in Globalizing South India. It was a jarring read for me because I started to draw parallels between how suicide shaped the lives of the citizens of Kerala and families are affected by suicide.  Specifically, Chua’s discussion around “the cultivation of an internalized subject” reminded me of Foucault’s “technologies of the self” and how internal states are embodied through outward practices (Chua 2014:173). The inhabitants of Kerala are constantly in a process of personality development in a society that is “overrun by suicidal tendencies” (2014:161). Keeping this in mind, I investigated in the interview how this traumatic event affected the subsequent decision making in his life within personal and familial spheres. How did the sudden loss of a loved one govern the trajectory of his life?

My first preliminary interview conducted lasted approximately thirty minutes. It was a quick overview of his life before he moved to the United Arab Emirates to pursue his first career. The second interview’s duration was two and a half hours where I was able to delve into the questions that led to a deeper conversation around his life. I noticed throughout the extent of the interview, the informant never employed word such as “death”, “suicide” – he never outwardly referenced that she committed suicide. He would use alternatives such as saying “when that happened” or referenced it as an “event” or an “it” throughout the whole conversation. I could not help but wonder if this was a coping mechanism for the informant. Saying something out loud makes it more real. Due to my close proximity to this story and the informant, I found that I held myself back in asking why he did not outwardly say “death” instead of using euphemisms for death or suicide. I knew going into this interview that I had to tread lightly because I did not want incite anymore sadness or force them to relive what they had already gone through and dealt with.

In Jocelyn Lim Chua’s In Pursuit of the Good Life, which discusses the ubiquitous presence and real threat of suicide that haunts middle class life in Thiruvanathapuram, Kerala, Chua begins the second portion by describing “care-full” acts and how women often threaten to perform them as a form of sacrifice for the sake of the family and to reinstate balance within the nuclear family. By framing suicide in this way, Chua provokes the reader to see how suicide is a viable option and how it fits into the context of everyday life and interactions between people. She continues by discussing how women engage with suicide and how women use suicide as a way to resist and “fundamentally transform the structures of power embedded” (2014: 113). Chua’s analysis here of how women’s experience with suicide to invoke control within a family by attempting to reconfigure the household is important. She continues to discuss how the sincerity of suicidal behaviour is quite often gendered. Skepticism around women’s failed suicidal attempts popularized the use of the phrase “female suicidal fraudulence” (2014:113). Chua’s analysis on how women’s suicidal attempts in Kerala were often viewed as manipulative or as a plea to reconfigure the family was a part of my line of questioning for the interview. I knew this question would be incredibly difficult to ask but I knew for the sake of the project, I had to go through with it.

BD: “Alright … I’m going to ask a more difficult and heavy question. You don’t have to give me an answer if you aren’t comfortable answering. After you had come to terms with what happened, did you ever wonder what the reason besides the postpartum depression diagnosis was for her to take her life? Do you think maybe she was trying to take control of what was happening in her life because she didn’t feel like she was in control in other facets?”

Informant: “Well … [pause for a couple seconds] She was in control of the household. Growing up in Somalia, you know this, although my father thought he was the head of the household – it was a matriarchy. I’m not sure if that is what it is … I can’t say that I didn’t think that may have been a reason. Of course I asked myself constantly what did I miss? What went wrong? I knew that she wasn’t herself after she had Yasmin but I wasn’t sure what happened… [makes a hand gesture insinuating that he is done talking]”

In the research proposal preceding this project, I mentioned that I was looking to see if the informant might have gendered ideations of why women commit suicide and that linked back to Durkheim’s canonical study of suicide, as mentioned in Chua’s ethnography. However, I found that although the diagnosis and reasoning behind her committing suicide was postpartum depression and how it is inherently gendered because it primarily affects mothers, although fathers do also experience depression after their baby is born. It could have led to how conversations around women’s mental health and motherhood but it never did. I had to ask what the reasoning was, although I already knew, for the suicide. This made me wonder about the ways in which men are forced to compromise their own mental health to forsake showing any emotions. I started to think about the fragility of male masculinity insofar as the informant did not ever mention the name of his first wife or refer to her absence as death or suicide, by which this process of containing all emotions also exacerbates ongoing and unresolved trauma.

One method of how the informant grieved and dealt with the trauma was by ensuring that the family he started after the incident corrected behaviours that may have triggered his late wife. This was embodied through constantly taking his children, three daughters and one son, and wife to visit a psychologist who would provide semi-annual mental health assessments. He referred to the check ups as a “precaution to ensure that I wouldn’t miss something that was happening under the roof of my own home, like I previously did”. He refers to the death of his first wife as some an accident that took place that now has to be avoided in future. Mental health assessments were a preventive measure to prevent further injury that has caused cumulative damage. The consequences within himself alone has been ongoing and sustained psychological and physical distress that forces him to do everything within his means to counteract that from happening again.

Once I asked if there were any signs leading up to the suicide that may have triggered her as a young mother to take away her own life. After I asked the question, I realized that I had not worded it as tactfully as I would have liked. I was met with silence. I began to back-paddle and reword the question.

BD: “Was there anything that happened beforehand that led to you to understand what happened to her?”

Informant: “Before she had Yasmin [her second child, who was 4 months at the time of her death] she went to go visit her sister and cousins in California. I was told after she passed that she got into a heated altercation with her sister over a longstanding family dispute. After she came back from California I noticed a behaviour change. She was never argumentative but she began to obsessively talk against her family members. I hadn’t noticed how incessantly she spoke about them until afterwards when her sister mentioned the argument. It all started to make sense to me. She became more closed off. She would not allow me to come to her ultrasound appointments. I was in the dark about everything that was happening with her.”

A major theme through the conversation with the informant was this discussion around what happened to his as something that occurred right under his nose. I could tell throughout the conversation he was affected by how, to him, her suicide was preventable. I could not tell if he still felt that he was responsible, but he mentioned in the interview that he took primary responsibility for her death. This reminded me of Chua’s discussion around describing “care-full” acts and how women often threaten to suicide as a form of sacrifice for the sake of the family and to reinstate balance within the nuclear family. The preventive measures that he is undergoing are “care-full” acts in that they are reconfiguring family balance to evade any serious mental illnesses that may lead to suicide or suicidal thoughts. She continues to describe how women engage with suicide and how women use suicide as a way to resist, “fundamentally transform the structures of power embedded” (2014: 113). This is salient within his family because he is transforming structures that can lead to suicide by correcting and deconstructing the structure that allowed for it to occur in the first place. These methods that he utilizes to prevent further violence and to create harmony within the family are embodied through the mental health checkups, the change in his career path, and his focus on emotional states and wellbeing of his family members.

I would have liked during this project to have interviewed the eldest daughter of my informant to provide more insight into how the trauma trickled down into the family members and how she was affected especially because she was the first child out of the four that knew what happened to his first wife. I intended to connect her story and experience with Vanessa Fong’s Only Hope: Coming of Age Under China’s One-child Policy. Fong’s ethnography would have been useful as a backdrop to understand how filial obligations shape the upbringing of children at times to the detriment of the child. My informant mentioned in the interview that he was wary of telling his children about what had happened so that they would not undergo the same trauma that he had. His constant analysis of how he could harm his children by telling them what happened sheds light on how self-aware he is and how he uses “care-full” acts to prevent further harm.

BD: You told your other children so much later than you told your eldest sibling, why was that? Was it a conscious decision not to tell us?

Informant: I decided to tell them a couple years ago because I wanted you to hear it from me. I kept it from you because I wanted to protect the image you had of her and didn’t want you to become affected by it. … I thought it would be easier for them to not over-analyze it like I do.

Interviewing someone as close to me personally proved to be difficult and enriching in different ways. It acted as an obstacle because at times I did not ask thorough follow up questions because I was relying on the previous knowledge that I had through him telling me prior to the interview. I also tended to evade questioning further and felt that I could not probe further when he became emotional because I also felt uncomfortable or nervous to hear what the answer may be. My close connection to this narrative made it emotionally taxing at times in the conversation because I would begin to think about how horrible it must have been for him to undergo that loss and to see him continue to mentally torture himself by inflicting blame onto himself. I could not think as objectively as I would have liked because I am a subject within this narrative. During my class presentation, I was overcome with emotion because I thought I had successfully detached myself from my research and the narrative that I was studying. At first I was embarrassed. I was mortified that I allowed myself to be vulnerable in front of my peers and my professor. I built walls around myself going into the interview so that I could ask questions objectively, and “anthropologically”. I tried my best to suspend my own preconceptions and conduct the interview as if I was completely removed from the narrative, but I was – and I will continue to be apart of this experience. In anthropology, when reading ethnographies, we are encouraged as students to enhance our critical thinking and to provide well-thought out analysis to think objectively. To remove yourself from the the story to evade becoming the cultural relativist. After completing this project, I will read ethnographies with a new framework of understanding. I am aware that we can’t help being our own biases; we will always have our own preconceived notions and we will never be able to think completely objectively. As anthropologists, we need to be cognizant that sometimes this works in our favour and it also works against us. Being aware of your own biases is important but operating on the belief that you can completely suspend preconceptions about a particular topic as you begin to read an ethnography is naïve. This naiveté allows us to think that our “objective” thinking may not cause harm and is infallible when that is not necessarily the case. Self reflexivity is vital in reading and studying ethnographies because it negates the notion that as anthropologists we have to fully become objective to be able to critically analyze a body of work.

In conclusion, my informant showcased that individuals who undergo a traumatic loss in are governed by that loss in extensive facets of their lives. The informant’s experience was a testament to how that individual may begin performing correctional and preventive measures to regain control in their life and to protect their loved ones. Various aspects such as consciously preventing his children from knowing what happened to his first wife and not sharing the whole truth were a form of psychic refuge. These acts were acts towards developing and preserving his own self care. The themes discussed in Chua’s monograph are not exclusive or unique behavioural patterns to Southern India. They are the daunting conditions of living with loss in a constantly developing world where individuals have to constantly position and reconstruct themselves in a post-colonial world.


Chua, Jocelyn Lim 2014 In Pursuit of the Good Life: Aspiration and Suicide in Globalizing South India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fong, Vanessa 2004 Only Hope: Coming of Age Under China’s One-Child Policy. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Maxwell, Krista 2014 Historicizing Historical Trauma Theory: Troubling the Transgenerational Transmission paradigm. Transcultural Psychiatry. 51(3): 407-435, DOI: 10.1177/1363461514531317

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Basma is a student double majoring in Neuroscience and Socio-cultural Anthropology.


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