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Intergenerational Legacy of Trauma: Healing From the War

Updated: Mar 3, 2022

On Thursday morning, citizens of Kyiv woke up to explosions after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the start of “a special military operation” in eastern Ukraine. Putin's "reasons" to break Ukraine are factually groundless, historically incorrect, and immoral, but Ukrainians have no illusions and are prepared for the worse to come. The history of the relationship between those two inextricably linked countries dates to at least the 9th century, and it has never been easy.

But I am not here to write about the war or the complex history of those two countries. For the past few days, most of us have been feeling pain and sorrow! Some have relatives and friends in both Russia and Ukraine and this is simply devastating! There are no winners in a war. Ukraine has a legacy of trauma and it is unbearable to witness this injustice, especially as Ukrainians have only just began to understand the consequences of previous continuous wars, repression, post-war cultural degradation and the suppression of free thought.

Ukraine has one of the largest diasporas in the world. The one trait mutual to every Ukrainian woman, whether in the diaspora or Ukraine, is that each is either a direct or intergenerational victim of war. Each woman has her personal war-story legacy – as a survivor, as the mother, daughter or granddaughter of a soldier, as a woman whose great grandmother lived through two world wars. The very immediate consequences of war are grief, loss, and death.

While thinking about millions of children in immediate danger and the consequences of the war in Ukraine, and every other war, I also wonder how to cope with Past Evils of wars, brutality, injustice, slavery or holocaust? Stories so typical for all Ukrainian families. So this post is about the impact of transgenerational and inherited trauma, a subject often omitted in the discussions around diversity, inclusion and mental health.

Everyone is susceptible to generational trauma, but there are specific populations that are prone to it because of their history.

Tragically, there have been many atrocities and crimes against humanity committed in the 20th and 21st centuries. We know that the psychological pain of the Holocaust still haunts not just the survivors but also their grandchildren. Almost eight decades after the end of World War II and we are still studying how a mass genocide is affecting its victims. The psychological scars are evident in the continued experience of post-traumatic symptoms. Meanwhile, in Britain, the history of slave ownership has been buried, reducing the ownership of human beings to the footnotes. The notions of collective responsibility for the past era of slavery and white privilege resulting from the imposition of racial inequality are largely unrecognised. It is almost as if no one wants to recognise that slavery was not only a dreadful individual ordeal but a cultural trauma. But this acknowledgement is at the heart of therapeutic treatment. There is no healing without confronting the demons.

It is hard for the mind to close what is left unfinished in the experience. “Unfinished Business" has been conceptualised as a construct that taps into cognitive processes refers to a subjective perception that something was left undone, unsaid, or unresolved.

The distressing news coming out of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, immediately plucked at my heartstrings as I also come from the country surrounded by the ghosts of the war. My history is marked by grandparents and great-grandparents from a war-torn country, a couple of whom died in the Holocaust.

My grandfather was born to a wealthy family but died in poverty. His father was an accomplished musician and an activist who conspired against the German Nazis. In 1940 he was captured and taken to Auschwitz; two months later he was transported to a camp in Güsen, one of the Nazis' worst exterminating concentration camps, where he died. It is not very clear how my grandfather survived the war as the Nazis kidnapped or killed tens of thousands of children from western Poland. After the war, left to grapple with his trauma alone, he became a teacher and a cultural activist, and he lived in constant fear of communists in power.

The depth of my grandfather's grief and his story was never spoken of, but to keep the sorrow and pain in his mind for so long created emotional problems seen in the orphans of most victims. I do not know what exactly was being transferred to us through the darkness of the Nazi crimes and the inability of putting these feelings into words. Yet, the family felt isolation and grief without knowing its origins.

I imagined feeling what my grandfather might have felt after having lost all his loved ones. The sensation of overwhelming loss, loneliness, and tension in my own body made me realise that some of my feelings were deeply entwined with my family history. His pain was boundless and the only way for him was to avoid it. Blocking these feelings stopped the necessary healing process restricting the flow of connection in our family. The unidentified and unexpressed grief was transferred, creating the "palpable and pervasive" personal suffering (Hoffman,2015) inherited by the next generations.

Bert Hellinger argued that the unsolved past or experiences of our ancestors continue to affect the family system into the present and are often manifested through signs such as depression or the inability to live life fully (Manne,2009).

He believed that all generations, past and present, play the part in maintaining a healthy family, so the systemic therapist takes into account the influence of previous generations, whose energy is assimilated into the parent ego state (Berne,1964). Traumas in a family system need addressing to prevent a fatal script in the next generations (Steiner,1974).

While ago I came upon an unfamiliar phrase: “frozen grief.” The expression comes from what is explained as a “newly identified type of loss” (Boss,2016). Frozen grief leaves a person searching for answers, and thus complicates and interrupt the process of grieving, subsequently causing unresolved grief (Gilbert,1996).

Hellinger believed that every person is a transferor of dynamics from many generations of ancestors.

Some people hold trauma that belonged originally to other family members, and there are few ways to work with such situations clinically.

In Gestalt therapy, the client visualises the disconnected, often unloved or unfamiliar part of his personality as sitting opposite to himself, and debates with it until he can integrate it. Humanistic psychology in general, sees the unconscious as the infinite potential of man, as an abundant pool of wisdom that everyone has within himself, and that can be slowly dug up. (Perls,1969)

Unfinished business creates the feelings of an “ambiguous loss.”

Ambiguous losses are those where there is no closure, where is frozen grief which can best be described as grief on hold.

Healing grief does not mean forgetting. The overall goal of therapy to cope with ambiguous loss is to overcome the trauma related to it and reinstate resilience (Ross,2013). A physical ambiguous loss can occur across generations as in the families of victims of the holocaust. Such losses cannot be resolved, but they can be acknowledged and supported.

What we know so far from research and clinical work is that ambiguous loss is a relational condition caused by the lack of facts surrounding the loss of a loved one. The process of grieving is different as one is incapable to gain closure due to unresolved grief (Boss,2000)

Every genocide that has happened worldwide creates a society of suffering and ancestral grief which passes down through family patterns.

Many nations are founded on unresolved grief, but western culture of problem-solving wants to "move on" with things (Boss,2016). Here, the “Black Lives Matter” movement remains relevant and salient. The global George Floyd protests in 2020 following his murder evoked ancestral pain, terror, and grief among Black people who have suffered various forms of violence over hundreds of years of oppression. Yet, society is still struggling to acknowledge the harm.

Destruction, loss of life, a humanitarian crisis is what comes first. After that, we will have to deal with the long-term burden of alleviating the intergenerational trauma of war. Psychological support for those affected is crucial for raising healthy children and healing emotional and physical damage.

Witnessing violence or being repeatedly subjected to poverty, fear or humiliation slowly eats away at one's true sense of self. When a child is unable to have his or her trauma validated and therefore suppresses emotional pain or grief, mental illness is likely to manifest in one form or another.

Once again, this fate awaits tens of millions. We can only prepare to be on the front line of never-ending battle against PTSD.


Works Cited

Berne, E. (1964). Games people play: The psychology of human relationships. New York: Grove Press.

Boss, P. (2000). Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief. pp. 9–10.

Boss, P. (2016, June 23). The Myth of Closure. The On Being Project. (K. Tippett, Interviewer)

Gilbert, R. (1996). Ambiguous Loss and Disenfranchised Grief.

Hoffman, E. (2015). "Identity." In God, Faith, and Identity from the Ashes: Reflection of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors. . Woodstock: Jewish Lights.

Manne, J. (2009). Family Constellations: A Practical Guide to Uncovering the Origins of Family Conflict. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.

Perls, F. S. (1969). Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. Lafayette: Real People Press.

Steiner, C. (1974). Scripts people live: Transactional analysis of life scripts. New York: Grove Press.

Report United Nations International Organisation for Migration. - 2010.

World Migration Report [Report] / auth. Nations United. - [s.l.] : International Organisation for Migration.


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