I often see evidence of trauma in the clients I work with. I will ask whether they experienced developmental trauma, meaning neglect and abuse during childhood. They will sometimes say no. This used to confuse me until I started asking whether their parents experienced trauma. This question frequently elicit stories. So will asking my clients about their grandparents’ experiences of trauma.
An unshakable fact is that a parent’s experiences of trauma impact their children. For example, being the child of a police officer leaves an impact. So does being the child of a fighter pilot. Why? Because the parents are struggling to cope with their own trauma at the same time they are raising children. Their trauma affects their parenting. It interferes with their ability to form secure attachments with their children and their children’s sense of safety in the world.
The experience of trauma gets transmitted from generation to generation. I will share three stories of men that lived through war to illustrate this idea. What is notable about all three stories is how common they are. They are possibly in your own family.
Details in the stories that follow have been altered to protect privacy.
The first story was told to me by Angelica, a woman in her late 70s. Her father was born in 1897 and left Czechoslovakia when he was 29. He immigrated to Canada in 1926. His wife followed him two years later. A number of people from his village also to Canada over a 10 year period and settled in southern Ontario.
Here’s what we know about Angelica’s father’s story. He was 17-years-old when World War I broke out. Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and her father was forced to fight for the Germans.
Now here’s where we can begin to fill in the blanks. We will rely on “Occam’s Razor,” which is the principle that suggests that the simplest answer is most often correct. We will stay as close to the facts as we can.
It’s safe to assume that Angelica’s father was not well fed or sheltered and that his health was in constant jeopardy during the war. A number of his compatriots would have died in front of him and he would have constantly feared for his life.
His life would have been a struggle and when the war ended in 1918, when he was 21. When the chance came to travel to Canada in 1926, at the age of 29, he would have leapt at it.
Once in Canada, life would not have been easy. One piece of evidence we have for this is a family story. Angelica shared that her mother’s only possessions when she arrived in Canada were four feather comforters. These would have had value because Canada is a cold country and freezing during the winter would have been a distinct possibility for new immigrants.
Let’s explore a second story. John, a man in his early 50s, shared this one with me. He said his father was born in Paris in 1928 and immigrated to Canada in 1946.
We can used Occam’s Razor to piece together John’s father’s history. We know that World War II took place between 1939 and 1945. This means John’s father was 11 when war broke out in France. John knows his father lived under German occupation in Paris from 1940 until 1945.
When John’s father died, John took possession of a shoe box that contained his father’s personal papers, including identity papers that were issued by the Germans during the war. The box also contained a tiny magazine that documented the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, which was a mass arrest of Jews by the French police in Paris.
Let’s use Accom’s Razor again. We know John’s father freedoms were seriously curtailed in Paris during the war and that food was scarce. His father would have seen people beaten in the streets. What can we make of the Vel’ d’Hiv magazine? The mass arrest certainly impacted John’s father. Why else would he have saved the tiny magazine?
We know the war ended when John’s father was 17. John knows his father’s fourth cousins sponsored him to come to Canada. John knows his father refused to return to France to complete mandatory military service when he turned 18. John knows the cousins gave his father land to clear so he sell the lumber for seed money to start his adult life.
Let’s use Accom’s Razor again. John’s father have felt fear, being largely on his own in a foreign country, learning a new language, at age 18.
John knows his father married in 1958, 13 years after coming to Canada. John had four siblings. Accom’s Razor suggests his father’s trauma history influenced his ability to parent. What’s the evidence of this? John remembers his father as dark and brooding. He remembers his brother’s feared the father because he could be violent.
Looking at our family histories and pulling together what little we know can lead to insights about what our parents (and grandparents) lived through, and what the influences on their parenting were as we were raised.
I want to share a third story about war to illustrate the point that these types of family histories surround us. When people arrive in Canada, Accom’s Razor suggests they are often leaving something horrific. People frequently immigrate to Canada to escape something, and in the hopes of finding something better.
I heard this last story from Andri, a journeyman, as he worked in my kitchen. He said he was in the military in Bosnia before he immigrated to Canada. He said he dreams every other night about his experiences in the military.
Andri is in his early 50s. Accom’s Razor suggests he entered the military when he was about 18 because this is the time when young men sign-up. His country of origin, and the dates involved, suggest he saw combat.
Andri told me he doesn’t understand why Canadians have pet food stores. Accom’s Razor suggests it must be quite a stretch to come from a place of devastation, where people are starving, to a place where we spend disposable income to feed house pets.
Andri is the father of teenagers. Let’s use Accom’s Razor again. He likely has difficulty making his children feel safe when he doesn’t feel safe inside himself.
Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta
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