Co-authored by Azin Dastpak and Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.
People can live a lifetime with trauma until a crisis forces them to face what has remained unresolved. Within trauma are stories to be explored, and sometimes the resolution requires a peek behind the curtain, beyond our own life stories into the generations that came before.
Azita Sayan is a marriage and family therapist and explores ancestral history in her therapy sessions and Legacy of Love group workshops. Her role involves helping people build awareness of how their family history impacts them in a positive way. Unfortunately, she sees many people who are initially victimized by their family history. But, when they get their power back and deal with the trauma, it is amazing to watch their breakthroughs.
She explains that when people realize they are a part of the whole, it takes away the burden of being the only one to blame, isolated in dealing with difficult issues. Sayan explains: “When somebody does something against the family’s values, outside of family’s regular norm, causes a disruption in the family relationships, or someone dies or gets sick, it becomes either something that the family unites over to resolve, or the family tries to deny, hide, numb, ignore, or disconnect over.”
Mina* grew up feeling rejected by her emotionally unavailable mother. The pattern carried into her adult life, with Mina choosing emotionally unavailable men. It wasn’t until her divorce that she faced the trauma—not only in her own life, but also in her mother’s. Mina’s maternal grandfather had suddenly cheated on her mother and left them; her grandmother went into a shock and was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward. Her own mother then became responsible for the family at 16, and she had to disconnect herself emotionally to survive.
Rose* talks about how the dysfunctional patterns in her family carried a legacy of pain. Family members in both her father’s and mother’s families attempted suicide in their teenage years. Her mother’s father also attempted suicide, which left him paralyzed. She herself attempted suicide at the age of 17. Now 30, she says: “Seeing those patterns was like looking at the world map, instead of just looking at my own section. I became more conscious of my fears and more responsible for my choices.”
Sayan emphasizes the role of personal choice and responsibility in ending the cycle of intergenerational trauma. The dysfunction within a family remains unresolved by their inability to communicate and express themselves, unwillingness to take responsibility, and blame-shifting by either victimizing or becoming controlling. The children either identify with the parent or get isolated and withdrawn. Each child may take a different role. Then they take what happened in their parents’ lives into their own.
Sometimes the person is unaware that they are reliving aspects of their family trauma. The suffering may belong to a distant, deceased, or excluded family member; someone who never got the chance to tell their story.
Finding closure with certain family members to heal trauma is important, whether they are deceased or alive. If the family member is available to talk, a therapist can provide guidance on how to communicate with them. Even if the family member is in denial or emotionally unavailable, Sayan explains that closure is still possible with the help of a therapist. Writing down the family history can help locate where the pain and trauma may be. Alternatively, writing, but not sending, letters to certain family members about feelings toward what happened or associated memories can help access emotions: “Through exercises like these, you can deal with the unfinished business and find closure.”
* Name(s) changed for anonymity.
Copyright Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.