When trauma is passed on through generations | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

THE PAST week had me thinking a lot about the nature of trauma and how, when unprocessed, it filters down to the second and third generations.


All these heartbreaking stories of the trauma and torture during Martial Law, and of the countless desaparecidos, definitely leave their mark. Many of those who were tortured and survived most likely have children who are millennials now— a generation that appears to be oblivious to what Edsa stood for.


And yet, these children or grandchildren of those who were battered, beaten, maimed and killed during that dark period in history possibly hold the key to turning the tide, and ensuring that what Filipinos fought for in 1986 will not go to waste.


Judith Kestenberg, one of the most prolific writers on the Holocaust, said that the event was not mourned just by the people who lived through it: “You know it may be for the subsequent generations to grieve.”


In his paper on the transgenerational transmission of grief, Paul Valent wrote: “Traumatic griefs are hard to mourn for those primarily afflicted. The next generation does not know what to grieve, for the afflictions are not in their memories. Yet they are pervaded by the losses, they carry the scars.”




There are many in the second generation of Martial Law survivors who are still, unknowingly, grieving the traumas that their own parents went through in the 1970s and ’80s.


Valent, on writing about the second generation of Holocaust survivors, said: “Only when their marriages, sometimes second, or their own children present problems, may they seek help, and even then they may not understand their problems’ connections to their parents’ Holocaust experiences.”


Trauma, when unprocessed, embeds itself deeply in the psyche, and often, it is only through treatment by a trained professional that survivors realize how they have been living out patterns whose origins they do not understand.


How is trauma transmitted? One way is through concretization—in which children are named after the dead friend or family member, and given corresponding unconscious, often unreasonable roles to fulfill.


Valent talks about a young woman who was experiencing severe depression and anxiety for reasons she could not fathom. The woman had parents who were Holocaust survivors.


Her relationship with her father had been strained since childhood.


At age 8, she developed a severe case of asthma which she struggled with all her life.


It was only after her father’s death and in therapy that she discovered that her father had a wife and daughter who both passed away in Auschwitz. A daughter she had been named after had died in the gas chamber at the age of 8.


Transposition, on the other hand, transports the child into the past situation. Parents’ past lives may be enacted on the child—for example, children who were starved in the war may become parents who continually feed their own kids, or the child who lived in constant fear and danger will have the tendency to be either an overprotective parent, or a detached one.


Grief can also be frozen and transported down generations. A man who saw his whole family murdered during the Holocaust spoke so poignantly about it: “Something tore loose within me as I sank to the floor. The small childish sobs did not come, instead my chest felt crushed…” The crushed feeling was carried by him from moment to moment, and for many decades after, even as a grown man.


Murdered and beheaded


My father lost his own father when he was 10 years old. My grandfather had been murdered and beheaded by the Kempetai toward the end of World War II. It was an unspoken grief, one that was not discussed in my dad’s family of origin, and only told to us in whispers.


Afterwards, the men who killed my grandfather came to my grandmother’s home and took the food, jewelry, and even the family German shepherds.


Growing up, I could never understand my father’s fascination with guns (he was a reserve officer in the military), his penchant for expensive watches, and his love for dogs.


It was only at mid-life, when I began to look into my family’s history, that I began to understand the many things that confused me as a child. My father, who lived through the war, never told me about his traumatic experiences. Maybe it was the grief that he carried in his heart that finally broke it and killed him at age 49.


Countless studies have shown that the second and third generation can be unwittingly drawn even deeper into the undigested script of parents unable to deal with their traumas and griefs. Valent emphasizes: “It is never too late to deal with the biggest traumas. But sometimes it may take another generation’s security and hope to grieve what was previously ungrievable.”


It’s been 30 years since Edsa, and it will be 45 years next year since the declaration of martial law. I am certain that many unprocessed and ungrieved losses remain. It is our, and the next generation’s, responsibility to tell those stories, to help those who suffered the trauma find healing, and to ensure that it will never happen again.

E-mail the columnist: [email protected]

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