What is Intergenerational Trauma?

Learning that the bodies of 215 aboriginal children were discovered on the grounds of a residential school in Kamloops, BC has been horrifying for our country.  As Canadians, we have gladly accepted the persona of being a kind and caring nation. The fact that the massacre of these young, innocent lives was kept hidden for so many years reveals the darkness of a society that is not what it has claimed to be.

It’s time for us to talk about intergenerational trauma and what it means when an entire culture is subjected to colonialism, oppression and acts of genocide.   Despite the cliché, time does not heal all wounds.  In fact, time without healing allows it to grow and fester. With intergenerational trauma, we witness the impact of abuse, neglect and oppression as one unhealed generation passes their wounds to the next.  The pain becomes part of the lived experience of the entire cultural community.

Although many of us may want to believe the past is in the past, and healing comes from “letting go” and “moving on”, this is not how trauma works.   As anyone who has lived with PTSD is all too familiar, knowingthat you are safe and actually feelingthat you are safe are too completely different experiences of the mind and body. 

As I heard this news, I thought of all the indigenous communities that I have both visited and lived in that have welcomed me with open arms despite the history of our ancestries. I thought about the impact this news would have on the people who have been living it, not knowing specifically what happened to their loved ones, but feeling in every day in their bodies and community.

So after the shock wares off and the news of this event starts to fade away, how do we offer healing to our indigenous communities? In my work as a trauma therapist, I know that healing begins when people are seen and understood through the lens of what happened to them and not in their responses and actions. In the words of Dr. Gabor Mate, “Trauma is not what happens to you.  Trauma is what happens inside of you as a result of what happens to you”.  

Let’s start with understanding the impact that intergenerational trauma has had on our indigenous communities.  Survival responses are often maladaptive and healing starts not with judgement but with compassion.  Let us hold on to the hope that an entire country can heal while we grieve for the loss of these innocent lives and for our indigenous communities.