This week I listened to an article on Arizona Highlights, a local public media network presentation, about a man who found healing and a place to belong through his efforts at recycling. He is a member of the Tohono O’odham Indian tribe located in Sells, AZ, and he works with another man – a white guy – manufacturing concrete tiles out of recycled glass that is found in the form of beer and alcohol bottles scattered all over the desert where he lives.
This man, a former alcoholic, spoke of the isolation and loneliness of his life, and the disconnection he felt from others from the time of his childhood. He spoke about the recurring traumas endured from generation to generation in tribal histories, and the personal traumas he experienced as a child. What he described has been named Historical Trauma by professionals in the mental health field. A woman named Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart is one of these professionals who described this ‘phenomenon’ for the Lakota people and who created a way to begin healing from the deep losses Native American people have carried with them.
I was a social worker for many years, and I came to understand through my work and my own personal experience that this kind of trauma, unresolved trauma and grief OVER TIME, keeps a person or a collective group from becoming a healthy entity. In my social work I researched family files of the children in my caseload, and for generation after generation some families had not been able to overcome their circumstances – alcoholism, abuse and neglect, drugs, domestic violence and foster care.
Historical trauma has not only been experienced by the indigenous people of the world. Cataclysms such as earthquakes and tsunamis, and hurricanes that cause so much loss, can bring such traumatic feelings that make it hard for a person or community to recover. I think about the indigenous cultures from North America, as well as the African slaves who were brought to America to serve economic goals of the ‘white people’.
And those ‘white people’ who left Europe for America were not unscathed either. They were living out their own traumas of famine, war, and religious persecution. And what about those who experienced the Holocaust of World War II? We are still being reminded about what happened at that time in human history. I’m also reminded of the witch hunts and the many women who were slaughtered. There were the orphan trains and child laborers. It is even going on right now in the Middle East and Africa, through inhumane treatment and murder of families, mostly women and children. No one has escaped – it is carried in genetic memory from one generation to another – not just by oral tradition or written stories. It is in our bodies!
I was in therapy for my own emotional healing for three years. I became very familiar with the grief process, first articulated by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying*. I used my understanding of the process to assist the children and families in my foster care caseloads.
To me, it’s when a person, or a collective community, continues to see themselves as victims that they get stuck in the process of recovering their emotional and cultural health. They repeat the stories of their unjust or unfair treatment to the point that it becomes a mantra – “poor me”. Until one can change the perspective of that trauma and come to terms with its reality, one can’t move forward in good health.
I remember when I first realized that while I needed to initially blame someone for my experiences, such as my parents, teachers, religion, etc., it was still up to me to move forward. The Biblical story of Jesus telling the crippled man to “take up your bed and walk” was the catalyst that moved me out of victimhood. I was no longer crippled – a little shaky on my feet, maybe – but I’d been healed enough to walk without a crutch, without being dependent on or expectant of others for my life.
After I left therapy I moved to a university town where I hid out for a while getting a master’s degree. During that time I had some emotional episodes for which I sought counseling. The counselor and I at one of our meetings held a ‘ceremony’ in which I became the women in my family lines. I had been working on my genealogy and was actually tracing the maternal line, beginning with my mother. At that ceremony I released the need for me to carry the generational burdens that had been limiting my life.
Some of the patterns I discovered through seven generations was a history of divorce in each generation, including my own divorce, a pattern of alcoholism through seven generations, a pattern of abandonment by the father whether intentional or circumstantial, and a pattern of un-mothered mothers. There was physical, religious and emotional abuse as well.
For me it comes down to this: each one of us has it within ourselves to become healed from our past, not just for this lifetime, but for all the generations who came before us. There is an individual process and a collective process.One very important aspect of healing, however, is having someone to witness the expressions of this grief. It is very difficult to heal by oneself. We need help.
I am grateful to those who have endeavored to bring forward into collective consciousness the possibility of collective healing. And I am grateful for the counselors who assisted me in recovering my life.
As a social worker I watched the lack of resources keep children who desperately needed therapy from getting it. Many times therapists are spread too thin for their clients and within the foster care system, funds are often non-existent. This brings me to the fact that in the United States of America there is not enough focus put on mental health and the healing of these traumas. It takes money and attention. Our country’s leaders have not recognized the need or made any attempt to address the suffering of those who are experiencing deep traumatic grief.
Unresolved grief keeps us tied to the past and revisiting the pain as if it was new or current. Often it is covered up by behaviors that do not serve our health or that harm others. Mourning our losses is personal and doesn’t take the same amount of time for everyone, but it is necessary for our emotional and physical health.
For further reading on this subject please check these links:
*This book, now 40 years old, is about the stages one goes through when faced with one’s own death. Other writers have offered other perspectives about losses and grieving not necessarily related to physical death.