Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: The Family Story of Trauma: Ways to Change the Legacy

family story of traumaWhether in the past or the present, a traumatic event experienced by one or all members of a family, impacts the entire family system. Be it the violent loss of a child, the devastation from natural disaster, the injury of a combat vet or the suicide of a family member, trauma assaults the lives of all family members and the legacy they share.

How Does a Family Cope?

One of the most important things a family can do in the aftermath of a traumatic event is to find a way over the days, months and even years “to speak about what happened.”

All families engage in story telling. Around the dinner table, in car pools, at holidays, in the middle of the night, family members share the day-to-day experiences of big and small events in their lives. Through the stories they tell, families create the fabric of their life and their legacy.

Why is it Difficult for Families to Speak About Trauma?

  • Families have a difficult time speaking about traumatic events because traumatic events assault the fabric of family life.
  • They are unexpected events that threaten, injure, and take the life that was known and the people that were loved.
  • They leave family members overwhelmed, frightened, angry, haunted with images, self-blaming, and bereft.
  • They are beyond what family members can physically and emotionally comprehend.
  •  Traumatic events feel “beyond words”.

Family Protection Through Silence and Avoidance

Given this impact of trauma, the inclination of many family members is to protect each other by not speaking about the trauma.In an effort to spare others from more pain, prevent the stirring of feelings, avoid contaminating with traumatic memories, or burdening the family with grief, both adults and children disavow history, deny feelings and often avoid connection. The myth is that “if we don’t talk about it we can live beyond it.”

Historically we know that the opposite is true. As  trauma expert, Cathy Caruth says, trauma “will out” in one way or another in spite of being silenced or denied. What can’t be said must be carried and acted out.

  • Yael Danieli tells us of the “ Code of Silence” of Holocaust survivors whose disavowed horror was nonethless passed on in the conscious and unconscious of the children they struggled to protect.
  • Kari and Atle Dyregrov consider the isolation and grief of young people whose siblings have committed suicide. In an attempt to protect their parents from more pain, these siblings rarely feel entitled to put words to their own confusion, fear and pain.
  • We are aware that the intergenerational legacy of combat stress so often unfolds in the veteran’s attempt to spare the family from his/her pain and PTSD symptoms. The avoidance, however, leaves the veteran at war and the family mystified, rejected and impacted by what remains “ unsaid” by this person they love.

Guidelines for Creating A Family Story of Trauma

As difficult as it may be to start, there are ways for families to begin to tell the story of the traumatic events they have faced.

A family story of trauma starts with verbal and non-verbal permission to work together to accept different versions and feelings of the same event, to share whatever is comfortable, and to know that someone else is listening. No one is alone with the trauma.

The Unfolding Process

  • Many families begin to share in an informal way over the course of dinners, holidays, birthdays, or Anniversary Events. At first it is not easy, but it is a gift when someone shares their thoughts or memories of what happened and asks what others have experienced. It normalizes the sharing and opens up the possibilities.
  • Some families begin the story of the traumatic event with a planned sit-down as a family, where everyone including young children can share their version of what happened. The message is that sharing and listening are permissible and healing.

When children are included in the family sharing and asked what they understand about what has happened, they are spared what trauma writer, Gabriele Schwab, describes as “stories told in my presence as if I was not there, stories that left me stranded in a muted space outside.”

  • Some families want the support and structure of a therapist, grief counselor or spiritual caregiver to begin collaborating on a family trauma story and  to help with the feelings and reactions expressed.
  •  Many families welcome the opportunity to meet and share with other families who have experienced a similar trauma. Group programs for families normalize and validate feelings and help family members find a voice to share what they have experienced.

 Using Different Modes to Find the Words

Given that traumatic events are not registered as words but as feelings, body sensations and fragmented images, a family’s use of other modes of sharing often provides a crucial bridge to words.

  • The drawings of a child can be an invitation for him/her to share feelings and questions and to hear the thoughts and feelings of others.
  • The writing, poetry, music or art of any family member can be a starting point for the shared family story.
  • The media, be it the news, a documentary, or a film, can be a very important way to begin a family dialogue.
  • Experts suggest that when a film or book carries similar events and evokes feelings of trauma or loss, discussion about it becomes a way to re-visit, identify, narrate and assimilate the unspeakable aspect of trauma “ at a distance.”
  • As a start, it may be much easier to speak about the characters of fiction than to speak about oneself or one’s family.

The Balanced Family Story

Whatever traumatic event a family has faced, it is only one dimension of who they are in the story of their lives. The need to protect with silence locks a family into the trauma and a legacy of pain.

When a family can find the words for what they have faced, they begin to find themselves again. They change their legacy to one of hope.