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Michael Wilkes. File Photo: SUPPLIED

The shadows of our past

In 2020 just before my grandad passed away, I went to visit him at the rest home.
He was clutching an ancient-looking wooden box and waiting for me with anticipation. He was 96 and his mind was as sharp as a needle even as his body failed. He was handing over all the family history he had been given from his parents.
The moment was more significant than I cared to realise. You see all four of his children had passed away.
His dad had died when he was only 13. And his mother passed away when he was in his early twenties. He lost all his children to mental health battles and at least three or four uncles to suicide.
This man knew the pain of tragic loss like few of us could imagine.
And here was The shadows of our past, a moment where he was passing on the family history to the surviving generation. In it were birth and death certificates, property purchase agreements, wills and pictures that dated back to the 1800s.
There were poems written by my great grandmother and a hand written sermon from my great grandad written back in 1930.
And it all sat with me, at 32 I become the oldest member of my side of the family for my children. Why do I share all this. Because history is important.
Because we stand on the shoulders of giants.
Because we have a culture that at times belittles the past generation; “Okay Boomers”, and writes off the one to follow.
Yet we hold responsibility for the actions of our ancestors and bear accountability for how the generation to follow will turn out. I discovered that my family were watchmakers for generations. And recently I had my dad’s cousin visit from Aussie to see the contents of the box. She explained that the process of fusing gold to jewellery released mercury into the air. My family for generations were joining the mad hatters and losing their minds due to that process. And I suddenly experienced both a sense of sadness and relief.
Sadness for the generations before me who had unknowingly poisoned themselves and their family leading to so much death and suicide. And relief realising that my family were not simply crazy. And it caused me to pause. Sometimes we don’t want to go into that painful past. It hurts too much. Yet sometimes revisiting that place of hurt is exactly what we need to do to move forward.
Sometimes the trauma of our past is what is holding us from truly stepping into our future. Sometimes we need others to help us work through the shadows of our past in order to step into a future that seems a little brighter.
I don’t fear the mental health history in my family now because light was shone on the shadows of the past.

– Michael Wilkes is a Living Well Trust Youth Worker