The Family Story of Trauma: Ways to Heal the Legacy

This story hits close to home, for me, as my family has endured a number of traumatic losses:

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?

  • 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.

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.

  • 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.

  • Physical activity shared together “ away from it all” often becomes the venue for a family’s shared thoughts and memories.
  • 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 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.

via The Family Story of Trauma: Ways to Heal the Legacy | Healing Together for Couples.


Mayors: Do gun research right

Mayors Against Illegal Guns, co-founded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, argues that “the federal government has surrendered its leadership over this area of crucial importance to public safety, shutting down firearm-related research in key agencies and all but allowing the gun lobby to shape our collective knowledge about gun violence.” Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and later the National Institutes of Health have faced restrictions on gun-related research.

The fight over the research dates back to 1996, when, after an NRA campaign against CDC gun-related activities, the House cut the agency’s budget by the exact amount spent on firearms-related research the prior year — $2.6 million. The law explicitly forbade the agency from using funds to advocate or promote gun control, according to the mayors group’s report.

“To make sound policy, you need good data. And the gun lobby has been blindfolding policymakers for better than a decade,” Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said. “The idea that somehow the public is kept safer by limiting what the public can know about crime guns and about the ways in which guns find their way from dealers into the criminal market is absurd, and I think people are starting to catch on to this.”

“Congress should be doing everything in its power to help further our understanding of why gun violence occurs, not impeding such efforts by inappropriately restricting scientific research,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), ranking member of the Labor, Education, Health, and Human Services Subcommittee, which produces the funding bill for health agencies.

via Mayors: Do gun research right – Brett Norman –

Police in schools ‘not the answer,’ says NAACP Legal Defense Fund

“Enhanced police presence in schools is not a panacea for preventing the violence we saw in Newton, Connecticut,” Damon Hewitt, director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s Education Practice Group, said in a statement. “Instead, adding police and armed security to schools often means that normal student behavior becomes criminalized. The negative consequences of increased police activity is felt most sharply in schools with large numbers of African-American and poor children.”

via Police in schools ‘not the answer,’ says NAACP Legal Defense Fund.


Comprehensive public health approach urged to curb gun violence in U.S.

Three Harvard experts say the best way to curb gun violence in the U.S. is to take a broad public health approach, drawing on proven, evidence-based strategies that have successfully reduced other public health threats like smoking, car crashes, and accidental poisonings.

For instance, in much the same way that media, celebrities, peers, teachers, and physicians worked together in the latter decades of the 20th century to “de-glorify” cigarettes — previously seen as symbols of power, modernity, and sexuality — an analogous campaign “could justifiably equate gun violence with weakness, irrationality, and cowardice” and reduce its glorification in movies, television, and video games, the authors write.

“Gun violence is a public health crisis, and addressing this will require a comprehensive, multi-dimensional public health strategy,” said lead author Dariush Mozaffarian, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). “Our past successes in reducing other harmful behaviors and accidents provide a set of evidence-based tools to address the many underlying root causes of gun violence.”

With more than 30,000 Americans killed by guns each year — 85 deaths per day — setting limits and regulations on gun ownership is just one aspect to be considered in curbing the violence, the authors say.

They offer more than a dozen recommendations, based on successful strategies used in other public health crises. For example, they suggest a new, substantial national tax on all firearms and ammunition, to more accurately reflect the true societal costs of gun ownership and to provide a stable revenue source to target gun violence prevention. Such a tax would function like the tobacco tax, which provides crucial funding for smoking prevention efforts.

“Changing social norms is a fundamental public health strategy,” said Hemenway. “For common products like cigarettes, cars, and guns, many individuals, groups, and institutions need to become involved. As ‘friends don’t let friends drive drunk,’ similarly friends should help ensure that a friend going through a psychological crisis doesn’t have ready access to a firearm until the crisis is over.”

“Safety standards for gun ownership still represent one key facet of a comprehensive approach, just as automobiles and medications are widely used but subject to sensible safety policies,” the authors conclude.

via Comprehensive public health approach urged to curb gun violence in U.S..

A Gun Would Make Me Feel Safe, as Long as I Never Need to Use It

If I told a kid we used to practice protecting ourselves in school from a nuclear blast, he might react: Are you kidding? That’s bizarre! Were you really worried about a nuclear attack? Really?

I have a similar reaction, today, knowing that school children have drills to practice protecting themselves from terrorist attacks or mass murderers. It’s beyond bizarre; it’s just unthinkable.

image of an UziI work in a school, now, and recently we had a drill that eerily reminded me of those air raid drills from my childhood. As I hid in the bathroom with co-workers and students behind a locked door, I had a thought; I wouldn’t want to die in here without putting up a fight. I said, out loud, “I want a gun in here”.

Yes, having access to a gun would have made me feel safer and more secure. My thoughts of being defenseless against an armed attacker were disturbing.

Upon reflection, though, I’m not sure having a gun available in case of an emergency, like a fire extinguisher, is the best idea. A fire extinguisher, for example, is only useful when a fire is small, before it gets out of control. Only a fool would try to use a fire extinguisher on an out-of-control fire. And by the time a situation becomes a mass shooting, it is already out of control. Would it be wise for teachers, who likely have no military or law enforcement training, to open fire in the middle of such chaos? Even professional law enforcement officers have been known to get confused when bullets start flying (see this two part video from ABC News: and

Or what if a student gets hold of a school gun and thinks it is a toy? Innocent people get shot accidentally that way.

On the other hand, guns could be kept securely in schools, so that only authorized people would have access to them. But what about me and the others hiding behind those locked doors in our potential death traps? I’m sorry, but by the time the proper authorities decide when and how and who is going to use a gun, we could all be dead.

Nevertheless, if I am ever trapped in that bathroom, facing a life-or-death confrontation with an armed and violent attacker then, yes, I would prefer to have a gun available to defend myself. I would be a fool, though, to think that a gun will prevent insane or violent behavior and will shield me from all harm.