Whether 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?
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.
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
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.”
Having recently met one of the many families who had suffered the devastation from Hurricane Sandy, it was striking that when I asked about their experience, not only did each share it, but all members listened intently to things they had not heard from each other – including the verion shared by the 11 year old daughter.
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 Balanced Family Story
Whatever traumatic event a family has faced, it is only one dimension of who they are and 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 to what they have suffered, they find themselves again. They make living in the present and looking toward the future possible. They change their legacy from one of pain to one of hope.
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The Family Story of Trauma: Ways to Heal the Legacy | AVC Triad (February 18, 2013)
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Last reviewed: 17 Feb 2013