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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Facts, Stories, Courage, Justice, The Court System

I went to court once. It was a simple matter. I was contesting a $275 ticket I was given for illegally walking across the railroad tracks in Bedford, NS. Yup. Turns out that’s illegal. Who knew? The policeman, who reluctantly issued the ticket (which is different story), did tell me that I could contest it in court. So, I went to court. I watched all the cases called before mine. Citizens, representing themselves, showing up to contest tickets of various sorts – not wearing a seatbelt, not wearing a helmet while cycling, other ones that I don’t recall. What I do recall is that systematically every case was “won” by the court – which had a lawyer present, a process, witnesses (usually policemen) with notes. The contestants had none of these. I knew, that had my case gone forth, there was no way I was walking out of there a winner. Except, thankfully, the policeman who issued the ticket did not show up. My case was dismissed. I walked away with a glimpse into a system of law that is not necessarily a system of justice but a system of process.

Scales of JusticeI am reminded of this little incident by a very high profile celebrity sexual offence case taking place before a judge in Canada at this moment. A case which is not only re-traumatizing the accused’s victims but a host of other people – primarily women – who have experienced something similar in their lives. It makes me think of the system of law, which may or may not be the same as justice. A court system that wants to protect an accused as innocent until proven guilty, so much so that the victims are on trial as much as or more than the accused and seem to have to prove their innocence, and even purity, rather than have it assumed.

I am thinking about the women who have had the courage to pursue this case, or similar ones, in the courts, who are taking the stand, whose stories are being cross examined in the search to cast doubt on the facts of the testimony. Re-victimizing victims, as if it wasn’t hard enough the first time, or difficult enough to step forward. It is a system that does not encourage women, perhaps any victim, to step forward, because it treats them harshly.

It is supported by a societal wide phenomenon that immediately casts doubt on any woman’s story of sexual assault – casting doubt on the woman herself. Even when many women step forward about the same man, as is the case in this situation,  there is more doubt about their character than his, as if there is a conspiracy against him. “Why didn’t you go to the police?” they are asked. “Why didn’t you speak up sooner?” Over and over again the answer is that they did not think they would be believed. Which is exactly what happens.

The women in this case say that the accused was, in one moment, the epitome of charming and, in the next moment, he was hitting them in the head or choking them in a rage. There is consistency across the stories, the ones in the courtroom, the ones reported in the media, the general knowledge that existed in the milieus of social settings the accused and the victims found themselves in. Part of the challenge to the credibility of the women is that, in this case, they often describe an initial encounter and then a subsequent encounter. Why did they engage the subsequent encounter if the first went so badly, is the obvious question? Surely it couldn’t have been that bad? Surely now you are only seeking revenge?

In reflecting on this and some of my own experiences (not nearly so extreme) in life, it occurs to me there is a gap created by cognitive dissonance – a gap in stimulus and response. A public figure. Charming to the extreme. Seeking some of these women out. Surely the rage is a momentary lapse, not the essence of this person? The mind is resorting to logic to try to make sense of what just happened. The beating, the rage, is “out of character” with what is known or presumed known about this individual and these women found themselves back in his vicinity, imagining a better situation, imagining a respectful encounter. Surely you have encountered such a cognitive dissonance – where it takes your brain awhile to catch up to what your experience is telling you to be true? I know I have been.

And then there is the role of facts. The court system is interested in the facts and in evidence. Part of the issue in testifying is that we relay our experiences through stories, stories that are a mix of facts, emotions and values. And there is research that disputes the idea that factual memory is accurate. If you have ever told a story and had someone contradict the “facts” you relayed with their own, you know how difficult it is to agree on the “facts”, because people remember different things. Was it this or was it that? Who knows for sure?

It is easy to get stories confused for several additional reasons. Stories are how we make meaning of our experiences. And we rarely ever tell the same story twice in exactly the same way. As time goes by, how we relate to the story and the experience may shift and change, as we try to imagine it never happened, or as we heal, as we move on, as we learn from our experiences, as we gain distance from the event. The story you tell now about something you experience today may be very different a month from now, a year from now, a decade from now. Yet in a trial, the person on the stand is expected to tell the exact same story, without variance, from the time they gave their statement to the time of the trial and, at a minimum, months, if not years have gone by. Any contradictions become “proof” of their inconsistency and unreliability as a witness.

When I was writing Embracing the Stranger in Me: A Journey to Openheartedness, a memoire spanning several decades, I came across my own writing from a decade before – writing done very close to the experiences I was describing. How I remembered those situations and the rawness of the writing immediately following the experiences was very different than how I recalled them a decade later.

courtroomI find my heart breaking for these women on the stand and for the many more who refused to go there because there is too much trauma, too much shame, too much self doubt and self recrimination. I am torn by believing people do have a right to a fair trial and wondering if that should not also apply to the courageous people who step forward to testify. And I continue to wonder if our justice system delivers justice while understanding the need and increasing demand for processes like restorative justice.

And mostly my heart aches for a society that will dismiss the voice of a woman to such a degree that even in numbers there is doubt. My heart aches for a society where people are ostracized for pointing out what is common knowledge in a community, an organization or a social system. I wonder how we have come to be such great protectors of the shadow side, the underbelly, and so afraid of the light. I yearn for places and opportunities for people to be supported and celebrated for doing the right thing, for stepping forward, for making us all safer. And, I hold space from my little corner of the world, for each person who speaks a truth known to many openly and courageously. May we be these people.