Shadow of our Ancestors

TRAUMA: In the Shadow of Our AncestorsEveryone has a story. There is a personal story, a family story, a mythology and a historical story that is often a mystery. There are answers awaiting us in our untold ancestral story.First let me say that this topic is enormous and overarching for trauma survivors. I will be blogging about this for 2-3 weeks. Please join the conversation.

I think most people have a story that their family tells about them, like when my daughter Maria was 2 she loved spaghetti so much she even poured it over her head and we have the picture to prove it. Well chances are Maria tells that story but doesn’t have a clear memory, but it is part of our family history and has shaped part of her vision of herself.

There are also the stories that shape us that we never hear, that are ephemeral and ghostly. For instance, what was my grandfather’s history that made him so shut down and taciturn. I would see glimpses of his humor, love and loyalty; I would see times when he seemed to connect with my Uncles, but far too often I would see a silent brooding man. I craved his attention and approval but too often the responses were negative or nothing. Did his pain, anger, sadness, drinking, his ghostly history effect who I am? Of course it did and I created my own story about my grandfather to explain the absence of real connection. What I do know is that my great grandmother, his mother was born in Ireland, came to the US, married my grandfather’s father who died when he was a small boy. Irish Catholic, raised in Philadelphia. With those few facts I created a whole story to assuage my craving to understand the alcoholism in my family. And I tried to understand why I felt so bad about myself around him. has proven that many of us crave the answers. Who am I? What events created this person that I am, the people of my tribe.

I have had conversations recently with friends who are children and grandchildren of survivors of the Holocaust, World War 2, Vietnam, Survivors of the “Troubles” in Ireland, the Genocide of Native Americans and other indigenous people, Apartheid, the Depression, the children and grandchildren of Sexual Abuse survivors. They all shared that the mystery of the historical events impacted their vision of themselves as much as an overload of too much information impacted others. The answers of who we are, how we cope, personality traits, continuing traumas are written in our history.

Inter-generational trauma and historical trauma are 2 interwoven aspects of family trauma. Historical trauma are those large sweeping events that happen on a world stage, such as those described above. There are so many events that impact the core and make-up of not only various ethnic populations but whole swaths of geographical areas. The inter-generational trauma that occurs as a result of ancestral events changes, challenges and impacts succeeding generations often without their real knowledge or understanding. These are the “personal” stories in the midst of the World’s historical events. The personal stories of survival of horrific events and the impact on succeeding generations.

I look to the men and women of my generation who experienced and lived through Vietnam. We are now into the 3rd and 4th generations being impacted by the horror, the courage, the anger, sadness and silence of a generation of soldiers who did not receive the help they needed and deserved and coped as best they could. So often their families watched as they suffered silence, depression, rage, addiction, social isolation.

Children of these Veterans suffered the same issues but without the War. The War was within their parents. Attachment issues and addictions are rampant in the generations that followed. These “children” often followed their parent into the military looking for connection.

Please give yourself the gift of Bruce Springsteen’s new song. THE WALL And for our next blog please give yourself the gift of seeing the movie “THE SAPPHIRES” about Aboriginal girls who form a girls singing group during the Vietnam era. Shining picture of Colonialism and it’s impact on generations.

The first real studies around PTSD occurred in the 1980s with Vietnam Veterans. When we translate that symptomology, we can see the elements of trauma in many more situations and understand that people spend a great deal of their life “coping” without understanding the what, why or exactly whose trauma is impacting their behaviors

• Alcohol and drug addiction 
• Low self esteem
• Eating and sleeping disorders
• Sexual abuse 
• Physical abuse
• Chronic widespread depression and rage
• Dysfunctional families and relationships
• Layers of unresolved grief and loss
• And a myriad of other symptomology

As clinicians we have the ability to re-direct the survivor to an understanding of their strengths and help to move toward purposeful living, but that takes time and the ability to help put the puzzle pieces together for inter-generational healing.

Next blog we will explore epigenetics and inter-generational trauma.

Thank you for being part of the solution.