Generational Trauma: An Emerging Science to Facilitate Deeper Healing

The past is never dead.  It is not even past. ~William Faulkner

I am the daughter of a Partition survivor.  The India/Pakistan Partition, marked on August 15, 

1947 brought with it freedom from 200 years of oppressive British Rule, but also a massacre of monumental proportions.  On the heels of World War II and the Jewish Holocaust, the Partition of 1947 went unacknowledged. Not only did 2 million people die in the largest mass migration in human history, the collateral damage and death from PTSD, shock, severe depression, anxiety, broken psyches, unspeakable grief and suicide has gone unaccounted.  

Now as survivors of the 1947 Partition are dying from old age, their stories are being archived by the 1947 Partition Archive  who is cataloguing details of what survivors went through and witnessed.  It has raised awareness of the important and thus far unacknowledged effects of the transmission of trauma in their offspring and beyond, an important field of scientific and psychological study now underway.  

Generational trauma is real.  The field of epigenetics proves this. Those who descended from parents, grandparents and beyond who survived war trauma, massacres, refugee camps, famines, or even singular extreme traumatic experiences, have had those trauma memories, symptoms and sensations transmitted through genes into our biology and feeling function.  

Dr. Shaili Jain, a psychiatrist and author of The Unspeakable Mind,  an expert in generational trauma states:

”The science of epigenetic refers to how PTSD may possibly alter the way genes express themselves in a trauma survivor and how such alterations can then be inherited by children on a cellular level and alter their neurons, brain molecules, neuroanatomy and genes.  These epigenetic changes are transmitted to children by a process called “intergenerational transmission” by having a negative impact on the parents’ sperm or egg quality or impacting the mother while she is pregnant. These children then carry the sorrows in their blood.”

Rachel Yehuda, PhD, a researcher of generational trauma has shown that the children of Holocaust survivors carry forth the emotional pain of their parents.  She has found evidence of this transmission in their DNA in gene FKBP5 and has found tags in one region of a gene associated with the regulation of stress hormones, known to be affected by trauma.  Her team found epigenetic tags on the same part of this gene in both Holocaust survivors and their offspring, the same correlation not found in any of the control group and their children.  

Since we live in a culture that denies emotions, where deep feeling is seen as a distraction or a weakness, when deep or amplified feelings arise in us they are pathologized, discounted, palliated, or denied perpetuating the cycle of continued transmission down the generations.  My sense from my own experience as a Partition survivor’s daughter is the transmission is amplified and surfaces in the biology, manifesting in the lives of the generational lineage. 

My childhood and adult life has been filled with repeated trauma.  How could it not be, as the first born child of a mother who at a mere age of 12, a Hindu in what became Pakistan, was displaced from her home in Pind Dadan Khan, to begin a new life in Hindu India.  She boarded a train with her parents and 3 siblings, only to be orphaned during an ambush that left the majority of passengers in her train dead and dismembered. She arrived at a refugee camp in New Delhi, with two younger siblings and tens of thousands of others who had suffered similar trauma, and from that day forward had to weave her way into a new and altered life. She carried within her, unspeakable grief, rage, dissociation, shock, PTSD, displacement and separation wounds, abandonment, sorrow, and a brokenness that only a survivor of this magnitude of trauma can understand.  As her first born, I have carried all of her emotions with an other-worldly amplification. My own life has been a series of traumatic experiences, first stemming from her relationship to me, then an amplification of all of her above-mentioned feelings, experienced in an intensely abusive marriage which left me with no choice but to transform my symptoms (and hers) to regain my will to live from a place of empowerment and meaning.

Since making a commitment to my difficult yet transformative journey, I have come to understand that my mother’s experience lived on in me for a promise of healing.   As I began my intense therapeutic work with my personal trauma nearly 2 decades ago, over time, I sensed that my healing was having a greater impact on more than my personal process.  It was healing the wounds in my maternal lineage. 

Even though my mother passed away unhealed  in 2016, I feel the profound importance of continuing my work of generational healing, for my ancestors, children, and grandchildren.  I have felt my deepest pain transform into meaning in what I can only describe as an alchemical process. I am now able to see how each feeling that was generated within me from precise forms of violence and abuse I suffered, were connected with the thread of what my mother suffered and was unable to heal.  This work is deeply sacred. The separation from Self that deep trauma causes can be healed. But it requires intentionality, consciousness, and professional guidance. My mother did not experience healing and transformation when she was alive, but my hope is that through my continued perseverance, her soul will find peace. 

As physicians, it would be important to expand our patient interviews to include a history of generational trauma.  It is an important and profoundly powerful context, which when addressed may be a key to healing deep suffering that our patients carry. 

As a tribute to those who perished and survived the 1947 Partition, an exhibit called, The Adarsh Kumar 1947 Partition Exhibit will be open to view in mid-September, 2019, at The Ommani Center for Integrative Medicine.   This is a PopUp museum  organized in collaboration with  The 1947 Partition Archive  whose volunteers have been archiving interviews with living survivors, and whose intention is to bring world awareness to this monumental yet unrecognized event, and to heal the children and grandchildren of the survivors of the 1947 Partition.