The words “generational trauma” are discussed in the national conversation of late. As many people open their minds about the long-term impact of our nation’s past, the subjugation of women and minorities, childhood poverty, interpersonal cruelty, and long wars on its many citizens, history draws a winding and complex pathway to how these many complex traumatic experiences have affected many smaller populations and then the larger population as well. These many deep seeded experiences have impacted everyone in some way, whether or not we want to try to understand it.
But what about generational trauma on the micro scale – the kinds that reside within the generations of one family? There are all kinds of traumas that can affect a family long-term, such as alcoholism, domestic abuse, suicide, financial or health crises. I think about this concept of inter-generational trauma a lot lately, as I make sense of my own life choices without a husband and the choices my daughters have made – without their dad here for them. The truth is, we cannot avoid family traumas. We all experience them on some level at some point in our own time.
The untimely death of a husband and father is its own trauma with unique challenges and pointed grief. Then add on how the untimely death occurred – was it instant or long and drawn out and full of suffering? Tack on the ceremonial experiences, the clean-up of his life, the anniversaries, the milestones, and the happy moments…which happen without him. Throw in how family dynamics and relationships and friendships changed because of the death, the additional losses from those, the loneliness at night, the health hardships faced alone, and those unexpected times of learning how to fix a toilet through Youtube. Does this kind of grief…and the challenges it creates…carry on through the generations? And if they do…how so?
I bemuse (in a dark humor way) that my family is cursed:
- My maternal grandmother was widowed in her late 30’s…my mother lost her father when she was 16.
- My paternal grandmother was widowed in her late 30’s…my father lost his father when he was 7.
- My mother was widowed at 49…I lost my father when I was 25.
- I was widowed at 45…my girls lost their father at 22 and 19.
Whenever this successive husband-and-father loss was tallied on my side of the family, my husband used to jokingly ask, “Should I be worried?” Little did we know…yes…he should have been worried. Maybe he should have never married me, or maybe I should have not allowed him to. Maybe this husband-and-father-early-death-curse was passed on to him through me. I gave birth to two girls…has this been passed down to them? Like some genetic disease that hampers a woman’s entire life…and then her children’s lives…and grandchildren’s…through no fault of their own?
It makes me wonder what my daughters’ significant others must think…should they be worried, too? Did this curse pass on to them? I know it is terribly morbid, but after this kind of traumatic pattern within the generations of my own family, how could one not wonder? I am sure those families who have struggled with the traumatic experiences from addiction, abuse, and other hardships wonder the exact same things.
Just like other generational traumas out there, what has been the mental, emotional, and even physical toll of carrying all this early loss of husbands and fathers within the generations of my family? I was 7 months pregnant with my youngest daughter when my father suddenly and tragically died. How did all that grief, pain, and physical stress to my body affect her in utero? How did all that affect her while growing up? Where does she carry it all? In her anxious moments? In her fears? In her DNA? In the neuro-pathways writhing along within her brain matter? I could name specific issues that have existed within my family, and I bet that many of them would likely trace back somewhere along the generational line to a husband and father dying young and not being there for his wife and children during some critically important years.
The generational trauma forces those left behind to rise to their feet when they may not have been quite ready and to find their own way through it, often unprepared and directionless. For some in that line, it never quite happens, at least not well. And many of us keep trying, hoping that we are getting better at it as time goes on but wondering every day if we are at all. But that doesn’t mean the impact of all that successive, collective pain just goes away with every positive move or numbing drink.
I think we are physically carrying our own grief, our parents’ grief, our grandparents’ grief, and so on, throughout the generations. Logic dictates that all that grief gets heavy over time, and well, we all have limits. At what point will it all be too much for the person at the end of the line?
This makes it all the more important that we address and contend with our own grief (in a healthy and constructive manner), no matter how slowly and how long it takes, and stop the cycle of passing all the pain and the consequences of that pain down the line.
What generational traumas have come to light for you and your family by the loss of your husbands?