Psychotherapy with a WW II Survivor: Bearing Grief with Grace By Tom Medlar, LMHC on 4/18/23 - 2:52 PM

An Incalculable Loss

Sakura was born in 1931, in the Japanese city of Nagasaki, a major port city and center for shipbuilding. She enjoyed a pleasant childhood with many friends and family. The early years of her adolescence were overshadowed, though, by the increasingly grim circumstances of her country being at war.

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On August 9, 1945, the day seemed ordinary for the 14-year-old Sakura, until in a flash, nothing ordinary remained, after an atomic bomb was dropped on her city by the U.S. Upwards of 80,000 people were killed directly, and many more later. Nagasaki was attacked, in part, for its role in shipbuilding.

I felt a cold chill of fear the first time Sakura told me about having survived that unspeakably horrific event and its devastating, life-altering aftermath. I felt ashamed that she had suffered indescribable losses, and that my country had made that assault on her home city.

The Shadow of Grief

Sakura was in her late 80s and lived in a nursing facility where I was working. She always smiled, was impeccably dressed, and stayed active socially, having many friends among the other residents and the staff with whom she joined in on the many group activities. She was referred to me for psychotherapy, and although she had not been formally diagnosed with depression, she suffered depressive reactions during anniversaries associated with her losses.

Working with Sakura, I had assumed that she might feel great anger towards America and Americans. My assumptions were upended when Sakura shared that she had married an American soldier several years after the end of the war, that she had lived in America, raised her children and grandchildren here, and had enjoyed a mostly happy life. Sakura deeply grieved over the death of her beloved husband a few years earlier.

Sakura’s remarks about Nagasaki were always brief, factual, and matter-of-fact. I never heard her verbalize blame or vent feelings of anger, and I never saw her publicly display her most deep and personal (painful) emotions. Sakura would discreetly weep as she spoke of the sad events in her life during our private therapeutic conversations. On the occasions of major anniversaries, she would spend the day fully dressed while lying still and sad and silent on her bed. Thus, on August 6th, the anniversary of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, on August 9th, the anniversary of the attack on Nagasaki, and on the anniversary of the death of her husband, she did not speak and would barely eat or move. Yet, she would be up and smiling and greeting others the following day. Those were the days she set aside for her most public showings of grief and perhaps even protest, although neither were likely her intent.

There were so many things I wanted to know about her wartime and life experiences, but I curbed my curiosity and attended to her choices of what to reveal or not. The importance of her dignity outweighed my inquisitiveness. I work with many persons who have been deeply traumatized, and for some, a probing therapeutic approach might undermine the fragile balance of their defense mechanisms. Some people have lost so much control it can be important to respect the choices they make about what or when to disclose or discuss traumatic topics.

I thought of Viktor Frankl and his comments about the many ways persons responded to the horrible circumstances they shared with him as prisoners in Nazi concentration camps during World War II — the same war that had forever changed Sakura’s life on the other side of the world. Frankl recalled how some prisoners turned against their own fellow sufferers, seeking advantages by aligning with their captors. Some collapsed inwardly and died soon after. Some chose an entirely different course by becoming the best person they could be.

Sakura was one of those remarkable individuals who could see good, remain good, and live fully, despite inexpressible suffering.


File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, A Day in the Life of a Therapist