Journey through intergenerational trauma, part 3 - Ancestral trauma

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What goodness has been lost here, in the person’s own mind, in the family stories, in the collective value systems?

This is the question that had gone through my mind as I traveled through a country which was once my home under a different name. A country in which it is harder now to find those moments of total ease and sense of belonging I had as a child.  Harder only due to a complicated history. I realized that to answer the question, I would not only need to look at this history, but the place my family and ancestors had in that history, and how did the stories which were passed down from one knee to another, shape my present day life across the Atlantic. 

Patterns of trauma 

When looking at trauma through the lens of mental health and psychology, often times we look at only at the events in that person's individual life which have left an overwhelming imprint in their well-being. Classical psychology tends to use personal experiences as the basis for explaining why trauma might have occurred and consequently why the symptoms of trauma might be present. It does not tend to look at the relationship one has to the land, to the place they consider home, to their culture, and to what is going on in the world around them, as much as they look at the internal world. Even less does it look at trauma which has happened to one's own ancestors as causative factor for certain patterns in one's own life.


Trauma is a series of patterns of symptoms strung together which affect both the person’s mental, emotional, physical and spiritual well-being. It greatly places the inner world off center and manifests in the person's life in many different ways. It can manifest as persistent chronic pain, illness or recurring physical health problems. It can occurs as depression, persistent low grade fear, anxiety, and many other mental health concerns, including addictions. It may manifest in life choices, the ability (or lack of) to create a life that is nourishing, supportive and fulfilling to oneself.

I personally have experienced physical, emotional and life style patterns of trauma in my life, and not having had one particular incident in my life, or series of incidences in my early years to point to and say "this is the reason", I have always felt stumped and stopped in the treating and transforming of the patterns.

Treating trauma by looking only at the internal world and what happens to the individual is just one tiny piece of the solution. To truly be able to transform the patterns of trauma and create healing we must look at what is going on in the outer world, especially what is going on in the culture from which that person is, or the culture in which that person is living in, and thus greatly a  part of. For me, looking at intergenerational trauma can not be separated from systemic and cultural trauma which is created and passed down through generations.

Ancestral trauma is systemic trauma

We have to look at the systems which make up a person’s life, the lives of their family and their ancestors. We must search throughout history and ask the following questions:

  1. What happened here that hurt so much?
  2. What goodness was lost through this pain?
  3. What has yet not been forgiven? What can be forgiven now? 
  4. What wounds became ideologies, value systems and belief patterns? 
  5. How did these patterns then translate into my life? 
  6. What patterns can I transform and thus release the wounds? 

The systems which shaped the upbringing of our ancestors, the personal incidences of trauma which have happened to them, systemic oppression through which they lived or participated in, the hate which was thought and the love which was nourished, all of these things have an effect on us today and define the patterns of intergenerational trauma in our lives and our societies. 

My ancestors

Currently I am in the Balkans at the home of my grandmother and grandfather who have both passed away and who (my grandmother) was the last living person in my family of her generation. The last carrier of stories from the generations before her.

Being in her home, I can feel a big void in the stories that she never got to finish telling me. I remember once we actually sat down and started to draw our family tree. In this process she told of me many stories of joy, hope, struggle, pain, endurance, sacrifice, forgiveness, love, happiness and so much more.

She told me of men who were innovative and creative in bringing ease and comfort to people in the village, men who were freedom fighters  for peace, unity and freedom, men who loved their wives more than anything else, men who raised their children to be strong and grateful, men who were proud of their lineage and wore their hearts on their sleeves. She also told me of men who got lost in the pain of their mind, their jobs and the wars, men who found comfort in the bottle or in the arms of another, men who saw their mothers suffer more than a child should. 

She told me of women who forgave pain caused by absent men, alcoholic men, unfaithful men, dead men. Of women who toiled the earth from dawn to dusk, who slept in animal stables while working as servents, women who gave birth and lost children, women who loved to sing and make parties, women who healed through their hands, supported the dying and cared for the well-being of the village, woman who were caretakers of others, women who loved being alone, women who respected the earth and took good care of her, women who stood strong and collected the bones of their loved ones and kept on walking not knowing if they can ever return home.

She told me many stories.

It is now that I am here without her, and together with my parents and sister for the first time together since we left this land 28 years ago, that I can identify these stories throughout the threads which make up my life.

I can see how fear and need for protection and safety has been passed down.

I can see how courage to be free and tuned into the inner wildness and creativity has been passed down.

I can see how the ability to listen and heal has been passed down.

I can see how self-doubt and questioning of self-worth has been passed down.

I can see how in so many aspects of my life which worked well I was able to tap into the warriors, healers, goddesses, mothers, fathers, peace-builders, caretakers and some of the most humble and strongest people I know of my ancestry.

I can also see that the many times I fumbled and repeated the same self-damaging patterns, whether in relationships, jobs, money, I can find them in the patterns of the stories my ancestors passed down to me. I can see their trauma and where it lives in my life.


I had come here wanting to answer the question, can there be peace in the Balkans. Each culture here has had the same experience of trauma and joy being passed down through generations as I have. Sadly many are still passing it down through ideals of nationalism and beliefs that they are better than the other through repeated stories of how the other has hurt them.

However, there are those who are not, there are those who are choosing to say, no, I will not carry your wounds in my bones, in my tears, in my life anymore. I will heal them by transforming the pain into a world which is good, a world where my kids can grow up free, safe and hate-free. 

So, I think the answer to my question, if there can ever be peace, is not a yes or a no. But rather, it is a question of can we transform the wounds into the goodness which has been damaged in each of us and our cultures?

The trauma of the oppressor and the oppressed plays in circles 

I think that same question can be applied to so many things happening in the world today where groups of people have been oppressed and traumatized by systems and cultures around them.

Can the oppressed forgive? Can the oppressor forgive?

The oppressor will only oppress because of the need to be above, to have the power. The need for power comes from feeling less than, and the internally damaged self-value. Think about it this way. If you value yourself you will consciously choose actions which uplift your well-being and make you feel good about yourself. Since human beings are inherently happier in a social environment (meaning with other human beings), to support your well-being, you will create warmer and stronger bonds with others. These bonds will teach you to love and be loved. And when they don't, as someone who has self-value, you will either transform them or find the ones which do.

It is hard to hate when you are working on love.

So, can we as different parts of the culture learn to forgive so we can work our way back to the goodness that comes with love?

“Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past”
— Lilly Tomlin

For me personally this means being able to identify the supportive and the harmful patterns of thought, value systems and behaviour which run inside my family, my line and my self.

It is being able to face them with the same care, respect and kindness as my grandparents farmed the land on which I now stand.
It means releasing the wounds which were never mine.
Letting them rest and heal.

It means taking the positive lessons and qualities of my ancestral and family line and dynamics and bringing them more actively into my life.



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