Legacy: What Gets Passed On
BACKGROUND: My siblings and I were remembering our Irish grandmother, born in 1900, as yesterday was the anniversary of her birthday. I had read recently that one way to remember people you care about who have died is to think, not that they have passed away but that they have passed on. What have they passed on to you?
PROBLEM: Passing on relates to giving something or leaving something for others. People we care about who die may leave us something, like a trait, a life lesson, a trinket, or a fortune – either in goods or values. Relatives can also pass on a family legacy of trauma or shame or un-grieved sorrow. Some interesting new research suggests that there is a mechanism for this intergenerational unresolved trauma. Documenting the latest in epigenetic research, Mark Wolynn wrote a book, It Didn’t Start with You, (http://www.markwolynn.com/book/) about how traumatic memories are transmitted through chemical changes in DNA and thus can be biologically inherited. This theory holds that unconscious trauma can be passed on. The problem is how to remember those who have passed on, in a way that is not detrimental but that contributes to our happiness in life.
SOLUTION: First, it is important to allow the tears and time to grieve for our loss of ones we hold dear and take time to reflect about the effect on our lives of those we have ambivalent feelings about. Next, it may be healing to remember what they passed onto us that was positive.
In terms of possible inherited trauma, people suffer when history is not spoken of (due to anger, shame or unresolved feelings). When not spoken of there can be no resolution. Wolynn believes that the trauma will then show up in a later generation, where a person will share a similar unhappiness as the original trauma sufferer in the family. However, the unhappy person may not know why they are suffering and know nothing about it’s connection to the past. This contraction in trauma repeats until it expands, seeking healing, and finally gets healed. It has only been 75 years since WW2. I know people whose relatives died in the Holocaust and I know people whose relatives were part of Hitler’s army. Other genocides, wars, natural or man-made disasters, as well as individual traumas can carry over and may need to be brought into the light. It is the nature of trauma on the brain that it affects the centers of speech, and some memories come in fragments and cannot be spoken of coherently. That is why some victims and survivors do not share their stories. The unconscious burying of these stories is what holds them in our genes to be passed on. So finding out the truth of any unspoken family trauma may be a clue to figuring out some of our own suffering. Bringing it out into the open may help things make sense and be healing. A psychotherapist can help lead us through this healing journey.
FAMILY LEGACY: Here are some responses from my siblings on what they got from our grandmother, who we called Gammy.
“Gammy passed on to me to pay attention to my 6th sense, INTUITION.”
“Gammy passed on her love of cooking to me and her religious faith.”
“Gammy passed on to me her love of life and hats!”
“Gammy passed on to me her love of parties, decorating the table, her humor and gambling!”
“ (She) was a good guide on how to support each other and co-exist without being too up in (the other person’s) business.”
“Gammy passed onto me her laughter!”
CONCLUSION: As we reach back to our ancestors we can view what gets passed on as gifts, either because they bring us joy (e.g. Gammy’s laughter) or because they can be unwrapped and brought into the light to help us heal from trauma.