The German Occupation Army that took over her childhood home couldn’t do it.
Neither could the Danish spies that moved in.
The Nazi’s couldn’t do it.
The troubled families she counseled professionally for years couldn’t do it.
Neither could a failed marriage.
Nothing could dampen the hardy spirit that gives life to Ragnhild (“rhymes with downhill”) Munck. Her courage and confidence only strengthened with each life experience. She may have been low for a while, but always rose like the Phoenix back to life, stronger than before.
But when her daughter, Maria, was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 30s, Ragnhild wasn’t sure she herself would survive.
As a child in Denmark, Ragnhild’s family owned and operated a hotel on a fjord. The bridge over the fjord was very strategic to life on both sides of it. As Hitler’s Nazi Party gained strength in Europe, this bridge attracted their attention. A small band of German troops were stationed at the hotel, and the family had no say in the matter. More small bands kept showing up, until there was barely room for guests. Even the Danish guests could not be trusted, and the children were cautioned to say nothing against the Germans – ever. A local poet, who wrote against the Nazis, was found dead along a street one morning. European radio and newspapers were forbidden. The children had to show identification papers to leave their own yard to go to school. On a day Ragnhild was a bit late and saw the school bus coming, she ran through the gate to catch the bus. The soldier at the gate drew his gun on her, but didn’t fire. “When I got on the bus, I felt like I had defeated the Germans!” she said.
One afternoon in the kitchen, her mother found a pot warming on the stove. Mistaking it for coffee, she poured it into the urn with the rest. Soon a soldier came looking for his mulled wine, and pulled a gun on Ragnhild’s mother for ruining it. An officer stepped in to defuse the situation. Mother offered her opinion of who was allowed in her kitchen, and both soldiers left. Though Mother was outspoken, personal and political matters were taboo. Ragnhild was often told “We don’t talk about this”.
While walking along the sandy shore, thinking she was totally alone, Ragnhild suddenly heard a great roar behind her. She froze when she saw a tank coming straight for her, its gun aimed. She was finally able to move, and ran for her life, all the way home. Her father told her the soldiers were bored, and had nothing to do but terrorize the locals. “I walk a lot.” Ragnhild says. “To this day, if a truck comes up behind me, I freeze. I have to talk myself down. My mind goes immediately back to that tank.”
When she hears crowds screaming and cheering for rock stars, it upsets her. There is too much similarity to the crowds to whom Hitler spoke.
May 4, the German army capitulated, and people poured into the streets in celebration. “People were just crying and hugging each other. We were dancing. We found out the man on the third floor was the one sabotaging the railroad tracks to keep the Germans back. The stress was finally relieved and there was great healing that day, for everyone. The Danes remember that day, and put candles in the house windows every May 4.”
Some time later, she met a Jewish couple who had been hidden in the house. Her parents hadn’t “Dare tell (the) children”. Amazingly, the children had never found them.
There were no counseling teams back then. Trauma was treated as something you “get over”, and move on with your life.
After that, Ragnhild and her own family lived in Egypt, Canada, various parts of Europe, and the United States. She had three children, three husbands, one divorce, has been widowed twice, a career in Social Work, and years of hospice volunteering. And she’s only 77.
Her focus now is marketing her book "Days of Goodbyes: A Mother’s Tribute to a Daughter Tortured to Death by Breast Cancer". All proceeds go to breast cancer research. The book will be reviewed here next week.
The deaths of her parents, particularly her father, hit her hard. In true Survivor Guilt fashion, she laments that he died alone, and that she didn’t do more for him during his last years. Her last husband died tragically.
But Maria’s breast cancer brought her to her lowest point. For five long years, this mother went to war against the evil that consumed her daughter. Visible in her struggle are all the stages of grief. Acceptance was long in coming.
She was asked how, after all the tragedy in her life, she even raises her head off her pillow each morning.
“There are times I wish I just wasn’t here. But I choose to be happy. I choose to concentrate on my blessings. There are many. I think of myself like a cork. You can push me under the water, but I always pop up! And every time I see Maria’s picture, I hear her say ‘Don’t give up, Mom!’”
What has helped her through all the ordeals of her life has been writing. She started at about age 14. With no agenda, she just let thoughts flow. She was finally able to write about her war experiences, and work through some of that. Writing is one of the tasks of grief, whether you’ve done it for years, or never even made a grocery list. Ragnhild suggests writing to the deceased, and to people with whom you’re angry. “But don’t send those,” she laughs. “Just write them and throw them away or hide them someplace!”
As one who suffers PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), she can’t rid herself of flashbacks, like the sound of truck engines and screaming fans. Unfortunately, she has never sought professional help with this. And when things upset her, her body reacts. She has sought medical care for a number of things, like heart problems, only to find there was nothing there. This is a major indication of PTSD.
Her battle continues with the book. “I want to inspire women to take care of themselves. I want people to know what this awful disease does to women and their families. I chose to support Silent Spring Institute because they are researching environmental causes of cancer. I think that had something to do with the breakdown of Maria’s immune system, leaving her vulnerable.”
Does she have plans to slow down any time soon?
“That might be nice. But I just have to get this book out to women. My other daughter tells me ‘Mom, you don’t retire, you re-fire’. I think she’s right.”
Count on it.
Questions and comments may be forwarded to Ragnhild by contacting the editor. Next week’s book review will include instructions on purchasing her book.