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: From a Legacy of Trauma to a Legacy of Hope: Create a Family Narrative

A traumatic event experienced by one or all members of a family, impacts the entire family system. Be it sudden loss of a parent to illness, 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 Traumatic events?

  • 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 change what was known and people that were loved.
  • They leave family members overwhelmed, frightened, haunted by images, angry and bereft.
  • They are events that 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 what happened.
  • In an effort to spare each other pain, both adults and children will disavow history, deny feelings and even avoid connection to avoid speaking and remembering.
  • 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. 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 nonetheless 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 refrain from verbalizing their own confusion, fear and pain. They carry it.
  • Reflecting the intergenerational legacy of combat stress, many veterans attempt to spare the family from their pain and memories. Their avoidance leaves them trapped in the horror of war and the family trapped and frightened by what remains “ unsaid.”

Guidelines for Creating A Family Story of Trauma

 First Step

  • As difficult as it may be to start, there are ways for families to begin to tell the story of what they have faced to create a family narrative.
  • A family narrative 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.

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’s not easy, but it is a gift when someone begins to share their thoughts or memories and asks what others experienced.
  • 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 narrative of the traumatic event and to help with the feelings and reactions expressed.

 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 Narrative.
  • 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.

 Changing the Legacy

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 forget, to silence self or others, and to avoid sharing what seemed unspeakable, locks a family into trauma and perpetuates a legacy of pain and grief.

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.



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