Transgenerational Grief

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In this guest blog I am sharing the wisdom of Grief Recovery Specialist, Steve Moeller, from The Grief Recovery Institute. I hope you find this blog helpful.

Transgenerational grief, sometimes called transgenerational trauma, refers to situations where a grief event was so powerful within a family that it was carried on to the next generation and sometimes multiple generations thereafter. In a very real sense, this is the “gift that keeps on taking” that can be passed on through a family.

The three cultural situations where this form of Disenfranchised Grief have been most frequently been discussed concern:

The First Nation peoples of Canada, Native American Tribes and the indigenous people of Alaska. These societies dealt with the “invasion” of immigrants who saw themselves as more “culturally advanced.” In many cases, these new settlers, and the governments who supported them, down played the value of these native cultures and placed the native children in western-based schools that forbid the practice of native traditions and even the speaking of native languages. Many of these people felt a deep sense of grief over the loss of their cultural heritage, which has been passed down through the following generations. It’s only in the relatively recent past that the “Indian Schools” have been redesigned to celebrate their heritage. Sadly, despite reforms, the damage that was done in generations past still deeply impacts these native populations today. The high rates of substance abuse, suicide, and a sense of hopelessness are well documented within many of the Native American reservations.

Holocaust survivors and their families have also been identified as a group who continue to deal with transgenerational grief. The deep sense of grief and loss felt by those who lived through the horrors of the concentration camps are unimaginable to anyone outside that experience. As those survivors went on to have children after their release, it’s understandable that they shared their stories of heartache with them, not realizing the continuing grief and emotional impact it would instill in them. Studies have shown a far higher rate of dependence on therapeutic counseling among the subsequent generations of those who lived through the holocaust than in the general population, as these people continue to deal with the horrors, fears, and loss instilled in them by their parents.

This form of grief has been noted as well within families who have dealt with child loss. After going through this tragic experience, these parents are often far more protective of their other children, sometimes to the point of instilling their fears of another such loss into their children’s belief systems. When this fear is deeply instilled, it can even be passed on to the next generation, as these children become parents themselves.

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Beyond these three groups, there have been others who have been identified as possible potential victims of this form of grief as well. A sidewalk Santa, in New York, noted after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, parents were much more cautious of letting their children visit or have contact with him. In a sense, this is an example of the ever-growing concept of “stranger danger” that we pass on to our children, without even realizing the long-term ramifications that can come with it.

There is the famous story of the Hatfields and McCoys, who carried on a feud in Kentucky in the late 1800’s. While it was originally the elder generation that were at odds with each other, the ongoing grief of that fight was passed on to the next generations. There are nations, and cultural pockets within nations, that have been at war with each other for generations around the world. This is particularly evident in the Middle East and Africa, but hardly restricted to those geographic regions. The feelings of grief and loss have been passed down to the ongoing generations and continue to fuel the flames of war and hatred.

The concept of transgenerational grief many have been only recently identified, but it is hardly unique to the last few generations of the world population. During the Spanish conquest of Central America, the conquistadors, and the monks who followed them, destroyed all but four of the Mayan codices, in an effort to convert the population and eliminate what they saw as “heathen” practices and traditions. The true history of this civilization that had an advanced written language, mathematic skills, and deep knowledge of astronomy is still being rediscovered. The loss of the history of their culture has been felt for hundreds of years by these people and passed on to future generations. The concept of trying to erase cultural history was a common practice of colonial powers throughout world history, and has been an ongoing source of transgenerational grief.

Now that we have identified it, what can be done to assist these grievers?

No one has yet developed a time machine to would allow these elements of grief to have been effectively dealt with in the past. That gives these grievers but two choices: to continue to be burdened by the losses of the past, or to find a way to deal with that grief and not pass it on to the next generation.

To follow the first option guarantees that there is no relief and that continued suffering is inevitable.

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Tammy Adams loves to problem solve, inspire and motivate others who are ready and committed to change. Tammy has spent over 30 years in the field of education and as a Certified Life and Executive Coach Tammy teaches individuals to challenge and conquer their limiting beliefs and insecurities to create the life of their choosing. As a Grief Recovery Method Specialist Tammy understands that unresolved grief can limit an individual’s capacity for happiness and is gifted at supporting individuals through the pain and isolation cause by an emotional loss, of any kind, to a place of happiness they believed no longer existed. Tammy’s clients say, “Tammy helped me unpack the baggage and put a smile on my face in the process. It’s a rare quality for someone to fully listen without judgement but yet still steer you in the right direction.”

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