Does Your Family Have a Collective Trauma Worth Healing?

Doesn’t every family have some degree of trauma in it; that perhaps ranges from somewhat mild to severe? This is a question I’ve been reflecting on these last few weeks for a variety of reasons, including wondering how a family experiences trauma individually and collectively and how, when it makes sense, a family can engage healing in its system?

When a family experiences the same trauma circumstances – an event or a long-standing relationship where trauma has been inflicted – each member of that family experiences the trauma differently. When removed from the trauma, the trauma lives on in each of us, in our cellular memory, in our minds and imaginations, continuing to affect each of us, each in our own way and collectively too. There is some shared aspect of the trauma, but the way we each remember our experience will have its own flavour, its own story, its own influence. What this looks and feels like can depend on your role in the family, in and with the trauma, your age and other factors too.

The family system that is interested in healing can explore the impact of trauma as they collectively experienced some element of it. That part can feel easy because it seems like everyone is in agreement. However, it becomes more challenging for family members to completely coalesce around the impact on any one individual because the experiences differ. Each family member needs healing for the full family system to heal; but the validation, acknowledgement or healing they each need is likely different.

We each have different assumptions and expectations of what we need to heal and what we think others need to heal. We may think we need certain things – acknowledgements, validations – from other members of the family. And whether or not they arrive – or when – might not be according to our own sense of timing.

Individually, it can be hard to identify and hard to express our hopes, expectations and experiences. What, in your own mind, feels like a straightforward ask, can seem less so when it is said out loud. The support and validation you are looking for might not arrive if your own experience contradicts someone else’s interpretation because of their own experience, their own story or their own trauma or if they remember your role differently.

What can we do when this happens? Notice your responses or your impulses. For me, when I encounter this, it makes me want to retreat – which is a reflex to “safety”, which is not necessarily safe or helpful for healing. In the noticing, I can make an intentional decision about what I want to do next and I can choose to communicate this with my family members.

Relationships are hard. And, to be clear, not all family relationships need to be or should be maintained. Sometimes the best healing opportunity is to cut off some family ties, as there is no hope for real healing in them. Having said that, for family relationships that are worth maintaining, even they have moments when they are harder than we expect, harder than we want them to be, harder than we hope. They are not all just sunshine, connection and laughs around the dinner table. They are also hard truths we may not want to hear.

Many, if not most, families are not skilled enough to know how to navigate family healing well. Most of us didn’t learn it growing up. There were no role models to look to. There are always some families who seem to know how to love and support each other no matter what. And there are some families so full of challenges and damage that no one seems to know how to navigate the individual and collective hurts. These families are more likely to fall apart, to stop talking to each other, to embody the pain and perhaps pass it on through intergenerational trauma.

intergenerational picture

What holds a family together in its healing? A few key things we have been learning:

  • Valuing self and valuing others too, so one is not meant to always be subservient to the other.
  • Valuing the family relationships enough to do the work required. Being willing to prioritize the relationships but not to the point of not addressing the trauma or other family challenges that show up. Avoidance only drives the emotions underground and, when they surface in their own ways, they tend to be even more destructive.
  • Give precedence to listening even as you want to be heard. Listen for understanding with compassion and curiosity, not for how to debate someone else’s experience or even your own. Be willing to listen, really listen, even when it’s hard.
  • Discern when to lean in and when to lean back. Learn to discern what needs to happen, be explored or discussed in the presence of others and what can be done on your own.
  • Be willing to drop a point of discussion with someone once you have heard it so you can digest it later if need be or take it to your own healing space.
  • Be willing to step back from being right, from insisting on being heard if that will not help in the moment. Be able to give space without backing away.
  • Find the language to stay focused on what is most important without lashing out in attack when you don’t like what you hear or can’t figure out how to make sense of it or are simply frustrated. Let it go rather than rehash it over and over again when it no longer serves. Come to terms and to peace with it.
  • Then, learn how to stay in relationship when the conversation is over. Learn how to apologize when it is deserved and even occasionally when you don’t think it is deserved. It might be the very thing that breaks an impasse and allows you all to get to a new level of healing with each other.
  • Hold space with and for each other, when you are together and apart.
  • Learn you can hang together through the tough stuff because it all matters.

These conversations hurt my heart. They also heal my heart. Without them, we would lose some of the core soul in our family constellation and it helps us love each other and be together better, if we focus on the love and healing, if we allow it.

And, bonus, if we pause to dig into the healing now, we heal back and forth along the lineages and that is worth it too. It’s powerful work. What are the family relationships and what family trauma is worth healing enough for you to stay in, stick with it and work it through?


Note: I am not a therapist. This is written from my heart, my experiences and my observations and reflections in my own families and in conversations with many others about this topic.

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Today, Finally, I Cried

This is the first morning in weeks I woke up alone in my house. As I sat with my coffee, taking in more of the stories, today, finally, I cried.

tears-of-the-heart

It is just over 3 weeks since the US election. The world has fundamentally changed. Yet, for me, much is the same in my life and work. No on the ground ripple – not yet. I have watched my news feed spiral almost out of control with stories of anxiety, grief, fear. I have read so many stories of people who have felt the fall out, have experienced first hand the overtness of anger and violence that once simmered under the surface and now is being expressed in checkouts at grocery stores, shouted slurs on the street, hateful words painted on people’s houses and cars. Divides that are tearing families apart.

I have read the stories of people whose wounds have been opened wider, being re-wounded by the level of public discourse that has misogyny, sexism, racism running more visibly and publicly than it has in some time. More of the undercurrents we do not always see.

I witness the spillover of fragmentation, polarization and fear across international boundaries from Brexit, the US election, France, Turkey and even here in Canada where it felt like we escaped from the brink of this in our own election to new disruptions surfacing with various provincial or party elections.

I am heartsick that women do not support the emancipation of women and do not support women’s rights. I am aghast at levels of misogyny so deeply entrenched in society that some women will subjugate themselves to it without conscious awareness. That people see others of a different colour, nationality or background as somehow less than. That there are white men who believe that they are somehow entitled because of the colour of their skin and their gender.

I am heartsick for the stand off at Standing Rock, the difference between how that situation and white resistance is handled. I am heartsick for an earth that is bleeding and hurting and for people who do not want to see what is right in front of their eyes.

I am heartsick for those who pine for a way of life that no longer exists, that is remembered in an idealized memory, who want the world to go back to a way that it was or a way that they wished it had been but maybe never really existed.

Not being able to predict the future – ever, but certainly not now in some of the most unpredictable times I have witnessed in my life time, I do experience fear and anxiety about the world stage, about what will happen next. I hold the grief of my own experience and of all of the stories I read.

teardrops-flowerI have also read the stories of so much courage. People standing up, holding the space for others who are under attack, coming to the support of people through words and deeds, rising to their openhearted humanity.

I noticed for awhile that the positive focus, the positive, aspirational things I usually post got lost in advocating for and against politicians and political stances. I need to continue to be aware and definitely stay woke and gradually I have noticed a resumption for me of more inspiring stories, a focus on the future I want to move towards.

I do not know that I can influence the course of world events. But I can do what is within my power to do. Last week, my partner, son and I took part in a community dinner in Halifax, sharing Thanksgiving with newcomer families who have been refugees. We met a lovely Syrian family who live near us and it was a heartwarming experience. Four hundred people in all showed up for the dinner hosted by Engage Nova Scotia.

The Worldview Intelligence work my partner and I do is focused on creating exploratory space between people with differing worldviews – from slight differences to vast differences. And even though sometimes we wonder how to bridge the vastest differences, we just keep putting one foot in front of the other and bringing this work where it wants to go. And it is important work in the world right now.

I hold my family close and focus on the issues and joys that we need to deal with – report cards, weddings, careers, Christmas.

I hope if I am called to courage in a public space to support someone I may or may not know that I will find it within me to rise to that challenge. I hope nations find it within themselves to rise to the courage that is needed now. I hope that the seeds of disturbance have answering seeds of courage and renewal with more of us determined to find more ways forward that embrace the diversity of the fullness of humanity.

And in holding all my own conflicting feelings, in holding so much of the grief that is spilling over in the world right now, in a quiet moment all by myself this morning, with my coffee, today, finally, I cried.

tears_in_heaven_dev_by_kuschelirmel-d6hzeuy