Grief and intergenerational trauma

You have probably heard the word “ intergenerational trauma” or a “ generational curse”? In the last few years, these terms have become part of daily language. But, what does it mean and how can we recognize it in our daily life?

In Canada, we often discuss and understand intergenerational trauma when we explore the experiences of the indigenous people at residential schools. We can see how trauma, the oppressions associated with  historic traumatic history, struggles and experiences can be transmitted from one generation to the next. Historic trauma appears in subtle ways but can have grave consequences and impact on how family members interact with each other. In 1994, 28 years ago the Rwandese genocide began, more than 500 000 tutsis were killed and had to flee their country.  The tutsis had to distance themselves from their culture, traditions and even their friends to emotionally cope. 

Individuals who experience trauma may experience many different symptoms. Some common symptoms are anger, fear, nightmares, mood swings, feelings of guilt and or shame about themselves or the event. They may become emotionally distant hence trusting or connecting with others is difficult. 

This impact can be profound and surface in how they interact with family members, friends and even potential business partners. The Rwandese genocide  is not distant history but history that continues to impacting more than 4 generations today.


The most relatable example can be found in Disney’s new animated movie; Encanto. SPOILER ALERT. 

Grandma’s  husband  dies in what  can be described as the migration process after she gives birth to a new baby. She has to continue with life and the family receives a “ gift” – a candle that gives all the family members special powers. It becomes the core of their house and the village they would build. All family members have to touch this candle to receive their gift to either build or maintain the house and the village. All seems well for a while! Grandma takes charge of the household and runs the family as a military operation, with each family member assigned a role and soon deviation is not being accepted. Grandma seems to be resistant to change and is unemotionally available to her family. Her family struggles to live up to her high expectations. At a closer look, grandma appears to function from a space of fear and not wanting  her children to endure the same hardships that she has. According to Cannon (2012) fear is common for traumatized people. The unconscious drive to get out of discomfort and create safety becomes the motivating factor for most unhealthy decisions; treating the children differently based on their abilities in this example. Grandma is not immune to this kind of response as she creates hierarchies for each family member that has them wanting to live perfect lives to gain favor from her. 

It is not until the candle runs out of flame that grandma realizes she has not been functioning for the betterment of the family but from her alarmed, traumatic brain. 

Trauma can have a lasting impact on mental and physical health, and it often runs in families. This intergenerational trauma is passed down through generations in the form of unhealthy behaviors. Similarly to the example given above, many children grow up thinking that these unhealthy behaviors are a normal way of dealing with problems. These  unhealthy coping mechanisms can become subconscious and continue to be passed down through the family, from one generation to the next. With intergenerational trauma, the cycle of violence, abuse, and other dysfunctional behaviors can be difficult to break. But it is important to recognize these patterns in order to seek support for oneself and or provide support for those who are struggling. 

 Intergenerational trauma can manifest in many different ways, including the way we experience grief. While grief is often spoken of as a single process, it is actually composed of four distinct stages: denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance. These stages are not always experienced in linear fashion, and individuals may move back and forth between them before ultimately reaching acceptance. The cycle of grief can have a profound impact on our lives both short-term and long-term. In the short-term, it can cause us to withdraw from our loved ones and make it difficult to function in our everyday lives. In the long-term, it can lead to chronic depression, anxiety, panic and other mental health issues.  

Cycle of trauma 

To break the cycle of trauma individuals can start the work by themselves and seek support from a therapist. Let’s take a look at what one can do by themselves, one must acknowledge that they went through a traumatic event and are willing to look how and in what area in their life they are struggling in. Take time to practise self-compassion and mindfulness daily. It is also important to make a list of areas where you are experiencing growth. Be willing to be self-accountable by opening yourself up to a loved one about what you are working on emotionally. This will garner emotional support for you and provide opportunities for both parties to draw closer emotionally.

Supports Available 

There are many modalities of treatment one can seek for when seeking therapy. Some treatments available are CBT based, EMDR, emotional processing and distress reduction and affect regulation. With the help of a therapist one can learn about the nature of trauma and its effects adapted to you. The therapist would be able to give a different perspective that you may not be able to reach on your own. While processing trauma during therapy, you will be guided to reframe your thoughts and apply new information in your daily life. By understanding intergenerational trauma, we can begin to address the root causes of these issues and help healing for ourselves and our families.


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