Trump’s “Losers” Comments and a Gold Star Son Remind Me That Losing a Parent in Early Childhood Can Be a Lifelong Trauma

In the wake of the Atlantic article detailing Trump’s derogatory comments about soldiers, both dead and alive, Dana Canedy wrote an OpEd piece for the New York Times. She detailed the harm Trump’s words were having on her now fourteen-year-old son, whose father died in an IED explosion in Iraq when Jordan was but an infant. Was his dad really a “sucker”or  a “loser,” Jordan wanted to know?

Mercifully, Ms. Canedy could refute Trump’s implied characterization of First Sergeant Charles Monroe King with evidence not just reassurance. Jordan’s dad had kept a journal for  his newborn son filled with fatherly advice ranging from favorite Bible verses to how to choose a wife. Was it prescience or just plain realism about the dangers of war that had caused him to do so? Whichever it was, Jordan and his Mom could look at King’s journal, photos and commendations as proof positive that he was a man of courage, principle and love for his family and his country.

I was not so fortunate. I had just turned two years old when my mother died. Hers was not a heroic death. She had not struggled valiantly against cancer, or jumped in front of traffic to save an escaped puppy or died fighting for her country. Instead, she had been driving home after visiting a girlfriend, possibly drunk, when she crashed her car into the back of a parked truck at speed. 

I don’t remember her. There was no journal left behind filled with maternal advice. Perhaps because of the manner of her demise or the depth of his grief, my father never spoke of my mother during my childhood. I was encouraged — actually required — to call my new stepmother “Mom,” to behave as if my real mother had never existed. 

That was made difficult by the fact that my stepmother, herself regularly prone to a bit too much gin, routinely reminded me, slurring her words, that my mother was a slut, a drunk, not nearly as beautiful without her makeup as her photos suggested. I grew up with the understanding that I should be ashamed of my mother, that she was a loser, that my father and brother and I were lucky that she was gone. If she really was all of those things that my stepmother said about her, I wondered, then what did that make me?

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

Like Jordan, I grieve for the parent I cannot remember and suffer episodic bouts of mourning. Unlike him, I struggle with guilt over my failure to ask more questions when those who could answer them were still alive. Unlike him, I have had to find my mother’s story on my own, to corroborate my need to see her, if not in heroic terms, at least in terms that do not castigate her, that see her as a capable, loving, fully human being, flaws and all. 

As children, we are taught that “sticks and stones may break our bones, but names will never hurt us.” But names like “sucker,” “loser,” “slut,” “drunk,” “criminal,” etc. do hurt, maybe even more than sticks and stones. You see, for me, and for the other survivors of unheroic childhood loss, whether through separation at the border, death on the highway, overdose, a shooting, police brutality or any other act of violence, it is all the more important to see our deceased loved one as a three dimensional human being, even if a troubled or imperfect one. My loss was personal. Multiplied, it becomes political.

Childhood survivors of loss need to know that our fate is not sealed, that we are not apples ready to fall close to a diseased tree. We have lost part of our understanding of who we are, we shouldn’t also have to endure further heartbreak by having people in power — whether step parents, teachers, law enforcement, priests, politicians, or the President for goodness sake — dismiss our loss by denigrating our parents, and by extension, us. Just this would go a long way to healing not just my but our nation’s wounds. 

27 thoughts on “Trump’s “Losers” Comments and a Gold Star Son Remind Me That Losing a Parent in Early Childhood Can Be a Lifelong Trauma”

  1. A word is dead when it is said
    Some say –
    I say it just begins to live
    That day.
    –Emily Dickinson
    Sometimes when a word is said, it comes to life in a good way. At other times, it takes on a terribly destructive life of its own.
    Thank you for having the courage to expose your own vulnerability, reminding us that the words we utter live on in their effect on others, intended or unintended.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m so sorry for the loss of your mother in such a tragic way, a loss compounded by the vain ignorance and petty meanness of your stepmother.

    You remind us that no matter how many decades pass, no matter how deeply we bury the wounds endured as children, they’re always there, just under the surface, bubbling back up at the most unexpected times in reaction to the careless (or purposefully hurtful) words or deeds of others.

    One wishes for leaders who grasp this concept, who seek to avoid inflicting pain on others, but alas, in the US we don’t currently have that luxury.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I get so tired of hearing politicians reflexively talk about “do this or that for our grandchildren” when their words and policies are damaging children as they speak!

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  3. Touching, transparent piece. Our folks have power way beyond other oeople and their abuse and/or neglect is deeply hurtful. I think it is cathartic and helpful to write about it. I salute your eloquent expression of the pain. It speaks to many of us, me included.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I agree. The “sticks and stones” proverb is brave but in the longer term some words do hurt, especially when they can’t be addressed at the time. It must have been very difficult to come to terms with what you experienced, if one ever can. I find Trump reprehensible.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I try to see the positives of my experience. I became a very empathetic educator, sensitive to the unspoken and spoken needs of my students, in part because of my own childhood. Loss can become the beginning of gain … or at least I tell myself that!

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  5. Thanks for this piece. Discovering who my father was, who died (perhaps drunk? nobody knows) in a head on car collision 11 days before I was born, was a long journey. My mother also seemed unable/unwilling to talk about him and as a very neurotic free spirit, she cast doubt on whether they would have remained together anyway. My two brothers and I were never very close to his family as we grew up and I was only ever able to catch snatches and glimpses of who he was from a variety of literal and personality snapshots from my mother and her family over the years. He was either ambitious, talented, smart, and handsome or was careless of my mother and her needs and fond of fast cars and drinking or not. Words are powerful and children receive them as imprints that last a lifetime, “true” or not. Our current vicious rhetoric empowered by the political elite will also leave an enduring imprint on ignorant and untutored minds, no matter the chronological age. Learning to speak my own truth is a lifelong art.

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    1. A lifelong art indeed. I am only now really coming forward with things that I have carried in silence for a lifetime. If only I could wave a magic wand I would make sure that no one else would ever have to suffer childhood loss.

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  6. I never understood any kind of logic behind…”and names will never hurt me.” Of course they hurt. What are we, robots? The journal you describe is absolutely priceless – what a gift. I read that article in “The Atlantic” and was sickened. I imagine those words will trigger memories and pain for so many.
    How awful for you to not know who your mother really was, but only through the twisted lens of our stepmother. Very traumatic.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I love the way you moved from the story of the soldier’s son into your own poignant account. Any time a parent is attacked a child feels the pain since half of each child is from that maligned parent.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This is excellent (and sad). My mother died when I was twenty-one. My father, remarried, won’t really have a discussion of substance about her. Because I was immature, I really only knew her as a child. She was eight years younger than I am when she died. I wish I could talk with her now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So interesting that your father is as loathe to discuss your mother as mine was. We did finally have some conversation when he was much older (and so was I) and no others were present. There is still time for you to try to have that chat. It helps.

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  9. My personal feeling about people who join the military (this is based on extensive experience teaching veterans from Viet Nam to the recent fracases wherever they are happening) is that, in these days, many people volunteer because they see it as a ticket to things the would not otherwise have a chance at — like a college education. The way they are recruited, the possibility of dying is minimized — but then they get there. Some of them actually told me they were “suckered in” by recruiters. Having watched some of the recruiting videos, I see that’s true.

    That still doesn’t make them “suckers” or “losers.” That comment is just reprehensible on so many levels. A guy who joins the Army hoping to be able to go to college when he gets out is just a guy hoping for a better chance at life, something Trump never had to struggle for. So many return damaged mentally and physically, completely disillusioned (in many cases), and chronically terrified (in other cases). The changes wrought on our world since 9/11/2001 … sad and unending.

    Parents…I’m very sorry you lost your mom so young, but sorrier still that you ended up with such a bizarre and narcissistic step-mom. I lost my dad a month after I turned 21. He had Multiple Sclerosis so the last several years of his life I witnessed his increasing debilitation. I didn’t realize that my mom was a drunk and taking copious amounts of librium (or what that even was!) Now I understand that for several years of my life I was raising myself. I got a lot of stuff wrong, but a lot of stuff right. I imagine you did a lot of self-raising, too, aware of it or not at the time.

    After my dad died, my mom said, when I tried to talk about him, “He was MY husband!!!” as if I had no right to have loved him and no right to miss him. And that was that. I didn’t talk about him, I didn’t get the chance to work through grieving with a caring and responsible parent.

    There are a lot of monsters out there bearing young.

    Liked by 1 person

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