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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When the Story Becomes Hollow

We use stories to make sense of our experiences. These stories shift and change over the course of our relationship with them. The way we speak of an experience that just happened is different than the way we speak of that same experience a few weeks, months or many years later.

Our relationship with our stories defines and shapes us to greater and lesser degrees. Sometimes we become very attached to the story we tell, to the version of ourselves we have lived out over time.

Some of these stories are truly defining moments of our lives. Some of them offer moments of journey we visit over and over again, looking for lessons learned, looking for healing, looking for moving on. When I wrote Embracing the Stranger in Me: A Journey to Openheartedness I described it as a process of peeling back the layers of the onion, only the onion seems to grow new layers even as we are shedding the outer ones. It can be annoying, frustrating and downright disheartening when we discover the story we thought we had outgrown still has life within us.

onion-276586_960_720These story themes are rooted deep within us. Depending on your beliefs, some of these patterns may have been carried into this life time from past lives (or future lives perhaps) and some of them may be within us as a result of being passed from one generation to another. We might not know or discover the root of the patterns we live out in life, relationship or typical conflicts we may find ourselves in.

IMG_4882So, when do you know the story is healed – finally, perhaps forever? I am sure there are many possible barometers but one of them (newly discovered in my awareness) is when the story begins to feel hollow. It has no substance, no catch, no grab, no hijack anymore. Like a quantum resonance you can see or sense it just within your field of awareness – like a ghost image asking to be let go. You could possibly put it on and wear it again, but like that comfortable old coat you use to wear seemingly forever, it no longer fits, no longer offers the protection or service it once did. It no longer defines you or your look – since your physical body often also changes noticeably when new levels of healing take shape.

I’m not sure it is something we achieve. I think it is something that graces our awareness in the moment it is revealed. Then we can acknowledge the journey, thank the story for all it has offered us over the time we have carried it and turn our awareness to the future and to the new story that is already emerging within the fabric of the old one that no longer defines us.

Shaping Our Experiences Through the Stories We Tell

 

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We are shaped by our experiences and, more importantly, by the stories we tell that help us make sense of our experiences. We can tell the story about how worn down we are and how awful it is or we can focus on the grand adventure of where and how life sprouts and how it sustains itself no matter what. The circumstances we encounter shape us. How they will shape us is up to us.

In these days when there often seems more bad news than good (at least in my worldview), remembering there is a positive story too – that things are awakening as well dying – can help us remember that nothing ever stays the same, everything changes, all the time – imperceptibly or dramatically and everything in between.

Where do you want to focus your attention so that you have an intentional hand in shaping your experiences?

Listening Another Person Into Healing

Recently, I agreed to be interviewed for an academic research project about an intense period / experience of my life. A period that is years behind me, that I can now speak about in a much more detached way than when I was in it or immediately past it. The interviewer knows some of my story. In the role of interviewer, her job was to listen, not to interact with my story.

Listen into beingAfter she left, I found myself at times weeping for no explicable reason. The tears just flowed. Beautiful, gracious, glorious release.

I am reminded of the power of just listening, not interpreting, not trying to put words in someone’s mouth. It is a witnessing that can bring another person into being. Can surface what needs to be surfaced for healing.

I don’t know what was there that was surfaced. I don’t need to know specifics. I am aware that something I did not know was still there was released. I am shifting shape yet again as I lean even more fully into this journey to openheartedness. As I answer the call of what is before me.

And I am grateful.

When was the last time you listened to someone else’s story? Just listened. With curiositySlide1 and compassion, no judgment. When you waited to see if they were finished their thoughts – because more thoughts, more aspect of story arises in the silence – before you asked your next question? When the questions you ask are for the benefit of the story teller and not for your own?

When you listen well enough, you can listen another person into being. When you listen well enough, you can listen another person into healing. Try it. See what happens.

The Truth Wants to Be Known

Stories of separated families, secret adoptions, long lost relatives have always caught my attention, even before I found out such a secret in my family when I was 46 years old – that I had been adopted. For a long time, the forces seemed to have lined up to keep it secret from me. But the clues were there all along. My birth certificate revealing where I was born – different than what I believed but I thought the administrators had made a mistake. There were no stories of my birth. I had recollections of my birth grandmother and sister, although I did not know they were my relatives. I thought they were friends of the family. Eventually it was a phone conversation between my two sisters and a curious bystander, a family friend who took to the internet as he listened, to proactively pursue a truth that wanted to be known.

I have read accounts of adoptions, twins mixed up at birth and more, and always, always events conspire even across great distances to enact chance meetings, new revelations of information, someone who can no longer stay quiet about what they know.

It happened again this week. My sister (who I met in 2008) arrived from British Columbia for a memorial for her father (my birth father) who died last fall. When his obituary was published in the paper, a long-lost cousin – the daughter of my birth father’s brother – contacted my sister. This cousin and her sister live here in the Halifax area. And she put my sister in touch with a great aunt (sister to my birth grandfather) who is now 88 years old and lives an hour away from me.

Sisters and Cousins Meeting for the First Time

Lots of excited visits and conversations. And different endings to stories. When I wrote Embracing the Stranger in Me: A Journey to Openheartedness, my sisters and I had been under the impression that our grandfather had died derelict as an alcoholic on the streets of Halifax. None of us knew what had happened to him. But our cousins – also his granddaughters – did know what happened to him – a story in and of itself that I might share one day. He did not die derelict on the streets of Halifax. Somehow he ended up in Northwood Manor, a leg had been amputated, I assume he sobered up, he was a model and favourite resident who spoke often about his loving family.

This story has been, is being, re-written. Like so many. As more truth shows up. Truth that wants to be known. And there are still mysteries to be unravelled in this crazy family, for sure. Especially about my birth mother’s side of the family.

My sister and I went to visit our great-aunt who is gifted in similar ways to us, participates in spiritual and meditation circles and paints. She paints many things but one painting in particular is very striking and one of a kind amongst her collection – a picture of a medicine woman, rising up from a big cat, a leopard. Painted directly on the wall in her basement at exactly the same time very similar artwork was being channelled for me for a tattoo and the cover of my book. And my great-aunt did not even know I existed.

It is not only in spiritual matters that the truth wants to be known. I have experienced it happening over and over again in work situations. People try to hide things, be secretive or are out of alignment with their own integrity or the integrity of an initiative. It is discovered or revealed in one way or another because the truth wants to be known and forces will continually offer ways to make it so if we have the eyes and the will to see.

Are you holding your sadness as a treasured possession?

 

5-of-cups-legacy-of-the-divine2Every now and then a question shows up that captures attention as if it was lit up in flashing lights. This happened to me the other morning as I pulled my usual three tarot cards from the Legacy of the Divine deck (my favourite) to help me imagine what the story of my day could be like. One of the cards I pulled was the 5 of cups. Not necessarily a favourite, I decided to open the interpretation book to see what jumped out at me.

Why do you sometimes cradle your sadness like treasured possessions? Are you afraid that the power of your heart will shatter it and force you to leave the safety of the shadowy misery you cling to?

Sadness as a treasured possession? Shadowy misery? Crap! And wham! Both at the same time.

A while ago I wrote about what is real and what is illusion. And I’ve written about my passive aggressive relationship with the law of attraction. And about limiting beliefs.

The journey of life has a way of dishing up illusion so we imagine we are in a different place than we are. It also has a way of waking us up to reality. Like these questions.

I feel the tremulousness of these moments in my life. Partner I love deeply who lives in another country. Re-imagining our work and our businesses. Feeling the pull of life, co-parenting, scheduling. Desiring ease and not always experiencing it. Am I cradling sadness as a treasured possession? Is it part of how I define my story? It is not what I want to hear, to believe is true in this moment but there it is right in front of me.

Am I clinging to shadowy misery? Am I allowing this to define and shape the story of my life in this present moment?

What to do about it?

  1. Allow the recognition of the response evoked by the questions. Yes, there is truth there. Still. After many years of journey.
  2. Invoke compassion for myself. It is a journey. It is not right or wrong or too long. No self-recrimination, just awareness.
  3. Journal to surface and release the patterns so deeply entrenched in my being that sometimes I fear they will never be fully released and most times now I can recognize as part of the unfolding journey – the journey to openheartedness.
  4. Meditate on the vibration I am aspiring to, to let it permeate my physical and soul essence to continue to attract my dreams.
  5. Take concrete steps, even if small, to show – myself, creator, the universe – that the dream I hold is the direction in which I am moving.

I share this because I know I am not the only one cradling sadness and clinging to shadowy misery. If this resonates, know you are not alone and follow the steps.

Dementia and Alzheimers: A Fate Worse Than Death?

 

Despite the prevalence of dementia and Alzheimer’s in the population and the increasing odds we will, at a minimum, come into contact, if not already in relationship, with someone who has this condition, many people are at a loss as to how to deal with, communicate or connect with someone who is losing their memories and, in the eyes of many, their very identity. It pains us to be in the same space when that person does not remember us. And this is exactly the problem – if you make it about your pain and not about the person who is still there, who still needs and yearns for friends, connection and companionship even if they no longer no how to express it, who still yearn for acceptance and love even if they do not have the words.

Why is it so difficult? How often do you hear, or even use, the phrase “I came face to face with my own mortality”? When someone close passes? When a certain age is reached? When you’ve had a close encounter with death – real or perceived? That’s hard enough, but what if you perceive dementia to be a fate worse than death? You see yourself in that person’s shoes and don’t like what you see or can imagine, don’t want to live that way, don’t think it is a life. And you become dumbfounded and wordless because you are no longer interacting with the person in front of you, you have closed in on yourself and are dealing with your own life journey and life fears.

My mother’s journey with dementia and in long-term care illuminated and tested some of my own fears and spiritual beliefs. Did I really believe the things I said I did? Did I really believe consciousness is not fixed but that it expands and travels? Did I really believe we are souls living a human existence? Did I really believe there is a fine line, just a veil really, between the physical and the non-physical? Or did I believe, as I often did, that the hallways I walked to visit my mother were the corridors of death and the dying? In Embracing the Stranger in Me: A Journey to Openheartedness I have included stories of the impact of my mother’s journey on me, as well as in many blog posts over the years.

My mother, in a time of her life when she could no longer string coherent sentences together – in fact, could no longer even find her words – showed me the way into depth of understanding. It is because of her that I began to think of two ways of experiencing stories – through the human tragedy lens or the soul journey lens. The human tragedy lens is one through which the physical journey here on earth does not make sense – because of things like dementia or other illnesses or any other range of possible things that pain us or cause us grief. The soul journey lens is the one through which peace can be found. It is expansive and offers a myriad of possibilities. It is the one that says I cannot measure my mother’s (or anyone else’s for that matter) experience by the lens of my own story.

What to do or say to the person who is living with dementia? It is simple really.

  1. Set aside your expectation. Do not expect them to be the spouse, parent, sibling, friend that you remember and maybe even romanticize. They are not that person now. But they are sill a person. Meet them in their humanity – the humanity you see when you look in their eyes (yes, look into their eyes!)and  see into the soul.
  2. Don’t let your own discomfort get in the way – or, in other words, get out of your own way..
  3. Set aside your own fear and your story of their situation.
  4. Greet them warmly – the way you used to – like the friend or loved one that they are. Because that is the essence of who they still are. They will be relieved.
  5. Don’t let it matter that they don’t remember who you are and don’t ask them if they do. In fact, don’t ask them any question they won’t be able to answer.
  6. Answer the same question 100 times in 10 minutes as if it was the first time it was asked, without exasperation, frustration or sadness.
  7. Tell them what’s up in your life without feeling guilty that you still have one when you perceive that either they don’t or you understand how much narrower their life is now than it used to be.
  8. Remember humour. We all like a good laugh. And it is okay to laugh with them.
  9. Stay tuned to where they are – it can change from day to day and it can change rapidly in the progression of the disease. Meet them where they are.
  10. Bring love. Lots and lots of love.

I am deeply touched by this video by Mary Beth Beamer of husband Alan and their appeal for friends to keep visiting. I appreciate the #Stillhere campaign by the Alzheimer’s Society. One of the things I deeply appreciated about the staff at Harbourview Haven where my mother stayed was that up to the very end they treated her with tenderness and care and like the whole person she still was even if her cognitive ability was pretty much gone because she was #StillHere.

Who do you know that has dementia or Alzheimer’s? When was the last time you visited with them? Go now. Or soon and remember the advice in this little gem too.

Alzheimers-Dementia-Communication Advice