War has a huge transgenerational impact on individuals, family systems and societies all over the world. I would like to share some of the ways in which the trauma of war continues to impact future generations. War affects all those who are fighting, their family systems and communities, the communities and societies where the war occurs, the many human systems organizations that are engaged in war activities, and the generations yet to be born. I have never been in a war, and so I will leave it up to those who have, who know the reality of war, to share what they will, and I will contribute to the transgenerational aspect.
When it comes to the impact of war on your family system, consider the following questions in the context of war, conflict, or violence and look back at least three or four generations if it is possible. If you lack information about your family system, yet you know where your family originated, do some research online to gain an understanding of what occurred during any given time period. It might be helpful to journal your answers to the following questions:
Who experienced war in your family system and which war(s)?
Who in the family system had war waged in their homeland?
Who died in war?
Did anyone die in war and not have their remains returned to their homeland?
Who survived a war when many others didn’t – perhaps living with survivor guilt?
Which family systems fought on different sides of war?
Have individuals from different sides of war joined in an intimate relationship or marriage?
Who was a war resister, draft dodger, or fled going to war?
Who participated in a war as the resistance?
Who was a bystander that did nothing during a war?
Who went absent without leave (AWOL)?
Who committed war crimes?
Who experienced torture?
Who carried guilt or shame?
Who was responsible for giving orders in war?
Who intentionally harmed others?
Who died in, or experienced, the holocaust or any other genocide?
Who had to flee their homeland?
Who was driven from their homeland?
Who worked for a war effort?
Who sent others to war?
Who taught others to kill?
Did anyone cause the death of another person either accidentally or intentionally?
Was property and/or money lost in war?
Was property and/or money gained in war at the expense of others who suffered?
Who was abandoned, isolated, shunned, or excluded from the family?
Who experienced a tragedy related to war?
Was anyone pregnant or did anyone give birth during wartime?
Were you born in wartime?
Were there parents who lost a child to war or grandparents who lost a grandchild?
Were family members separated due to war?
Were the family members who fought in wars welcomed home in a good way?
Was anyone separated from father/mother while they trained in the military or participated in war?
Did anyone commit suicide due to war trauma, or to avoid going to war?
Did anyone suffer severe war injuries?
Was anyone institutionalized due to war participation? (i.e. psychiatric care facilities, prisons, or other)
Has anyone experienced chronic illness (i.e. mental health, PTSD, etc.) due to war?
Did anyone narrowly escape going to war and carry survivor guilt?
Were the war dead in your family system honoured and/or appropriately grieved?
Was the involvement in war silenced in your family?
Were you overwhelmed by this list?
As a peacebuilder, I know that the thought of war can be overwhelming. How do you begin to process all this discussion about war? How do you energetically process all the war and conflict in the world today? I encourage you to sit down and light a candle for all those in the world who have experienced war and all those who died in war, and take a few deep breaths. As you read the long list above, where in your body did you feel the impact of war? Was it in your chest near your heart, in your lower abdomen as anxiety and churning, in your jaw as tightening, or in your solar plexus as a knot? Be aware of that place in your body as a holding pattern for stress, overwhelm, fear, and trauma. We are able to process the war in our own family system when we first, acknowledge it; second, accept what was; and third, honour it in some way. We are called to openly and courageously look at the victim and perpetrator dynamics in our family system.
A Day of Remembrance
The war dead want to be remembered and welcomed into the family system. Exclusion tends to bring suffering to future generations. It is Remembrance Day in Canada today, November 11th, and on this day we remember those who served their country in war, those who were wounded in war, and those who died in war. We wear a red poppy over our heart in remembrance. Remembering is taking the time to acknowledge all those from our own family system who have experienced war. My paternal grandfather experienced the traumatic horrors, and I’m certain great fear, in World War I as a soldier in the battles at Arras/Scarpe as an 85th, 185th, and 193rd Nova Scotia Highlander. He was involved in war for two years when he was injured September 1918 and spent a length of time recovering from his wounds before returning to Nova Scotia.
As I prepared to write this blog post I pulled out a thin book I purchased in 2002 while touring Vimy in France, a few minutes down the road from where my grandfather fought in the war. I want to share the words of the poem In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, a Canadian medical officer stationed near the Second Battle of Ypres. McCrae was inspired to write the poem when his close friend Alexis Helmer was killed May 2, 2015.
In Flanders Fields, by John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch, be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
For many reasons this poem is systemic. It speaks of relationships, of loving and being loved, of quarrelling with a foe, of duty and commitment, of passing the torch, of breaking faith, and of relationship beyond death. As I read the poem again, it occurred to me that McCrae was speaking of transgenerational trauma, of the interconnection between the living and the dead, of wanting to be remembered so that the horrors and the death have meaning.
For those who survive war, the emotional trauma often gets buried within the body. Soldiers return home from war and they want to protect their families and loved ones from the horrors that they have experienced. Those back home really don’t want to hear about the horrors either. A wall of silence is usually the result. The soldiers may carry with them survivor guilt, wondering why so many died and yet they were spared. For some, the physical wounds may heal, however, the deep emotional, mental, and spiritual wounds linger on forever imprinted on the cells of the body. For many others, they live with these deep wounds, as well as, traumatic physical wounds that change many lives forever. The suppression of the emotion wounds of war is a catalyst for transgenerational trauma to be transmitted down in a family system from generation to generation until the emotional healing is addressed. Many family systems might remember someone who carried their trauma inside, perhaps living as a quiet and gentle soul, the survivor of war. Many others carry open trauma that was or is seeking to be healed.
There is a line of thought that we cannot fully know peace if we don’t experience or know war. I suppose that peace is something that can be taken for granted if there is little knowledge of war. When you take the time to look back to the war experiences within your own family system, you are experiencing war energetically. You will know if there is something within your family system that seeks to be healed because someone in the current living generations may be suffering or feel entangled with the trauma of war in some way.
As I continued to read the rest of the small book, In Flanders Fields, and I looked at the pictures, the name of Alexis Helmer suddenly caught my eye. This name would not have stood out for me back in 2002 when I first purchased and read the book. Today it suddenly had new meaning for me. A few years ago, with the aid of all the genealogy information online, I discovered that my maternal great great great great grandmother was a Helmer. I am the main genealogist of my family system, so instantly I was off on a search for a connection, which I felt certain was there. I immediately found information connecting John McCrae to Alexis Helmer and Helmer’s ancestors were revealed shortly after that. The place names of their births and their deaths matched many of my ancestors. In the 1690s, my GGGGGGG Grandfather was a brother to Alexis Helmer’s GGGG Grandfather and they were immigrants to New York State with their parents before there was even a country called the United States of America, from an area of Europe that is currently part of Germany. I find that meaning-making follows awareness.
Dates and Anniversaries
Remembrance Day is an anniversary date in my family system. One of my siblings was married on Remembrance Day. I am aware that my family system fought on one side of the World Wars and my sibling’s partner’s family were drawn into the fight on the other side due to location. I find this dynamic in the family systems of many of my clients. The Allies marry the Axis, and I hope that one intimate partnership at a time will bring healing at a collective societal level.
When you are aware of your family system and your ancestors you are more likely to feel a strong foundation beneath you. When you are unaware, you may feel unbalanced and ungrounded. You may not feel a strong home connection. Studies have shown that children are healthier when they know about their family history.
There are many impacts to consider transgenerationally in a family system when war is involved. During wartime, emotional expression is often frowned upon, silenced, or suppressed. Emotional expression could cost a person’s life during wartime. Emotion that is not expressed is stored in the cells of the body as unresolved transgenerational trauma and it is passed down to future generations until it is openly expressed and processed in a healthy way. Descendants of family systems impacted by war may or may not recognize that family members are carrying some of this unresolved transgenerational trauma. For your own wellbeing it is important to sort out whether you are one of these individuals. Systemic (family) constellations can bring great insight into a family system in relation to the dynamics of war when the answers are not readily apparent.
This unresolved transgenerational trauma may be impacting you or someone you love physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, financially, or relationally with many symptoms or conditions. Someone could feel drawn to the dead, carrying anxiety and depression that does not have a conscious, rational explanation. Someone could be having relationship issues that show up as emotional distancing, lack of relationship commitment, fear of harming others, fear of being harmed, control issues, or carrying guilt or shame. If a family lost property in war or took property in war, someone in the family system may constantly struggle financially. Hypervigilance can remain within the family system because it is a common traumatic activity of wartime. Who had to be vigilant, keep watch or stay alert or else something bad might happen? Lack of safety created a similar dynamic. Hypervigilance can be related to an inability to get to sleep or to sleep soundly at night. The unconscious feeling, “If I fall asleep something bad might happen.” Many symptoms can be entangled with someone who had to be vigilant in wartime. Someone in the family system may carry both the energy of the victim and the perpetrator in a heavy way. Psychosis or schizophrenia seems to be linked to the voices of the victims and the perpetrators of the family system wanting to be heard and acknowledged. Sometimes people were victims and at other times over history they were the perpetrators for family survival. Silence about the past history of the family system may compound these symptoms.
Victims and Perpetrators
War carries with it the energy of victims and perpetrators. Are soldiers returning from war treated as victims or perpetrators? Given the circumstances they endured in war, they were likely both at different times. I believe the poem above is asking the reader not to perceive the soldiers as victims or as perpetrators but to honour both within each one of us. It is often stated that if we are pushed hard enough, we all have the capacity for doing horrible things. I feel the poem asks the reader to carry the torch. I think the torch can be used to light up the world with love, or if we carry hatred in our hearts and souls, it will blow out the torch.
There are no generalizations to be made about war, since everyone has a different experience. Within the principles of systemic constellations there is a sense that a soldier fairs better emotionally if they look at the enemy on the other side and see their humanity. If a soldier is taught to de-humanize to kill they will suffer deep within their soul. If a soldier is able to accept what is on the battlefield, making it a question of killing or being killed, of deeply understanding that each side feels they are doing the right thing for their people, then different meaning may come out of war.
A short time ago I was travelling from the United States to Canada and I was reading something to pass the time at the Seattle airport. I was sitting in the end chair in a long row of empty seats. I found it somewhat intriguing when a man sat down immediately beside me, leaving the rest of the row empty. He immediately struck up a conversation with me about having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from his time in the Vietnam War. Somehow he must have felt I was the right person to talk to about his concerns. He was in Seattle to receive some sort of veteran’s compensation for his trauma, finally recognized about forty years after the trauma occurred. He told me about the many ways the trauma had impacted his life, his family, and his work experiences. He explained how debilitating it was at times, and then, just like that we parted ways. I don’t know if he even got on the aircraft. I have learned that individuals are more likely to suffer from PTSD if they are not openly welcomed back into their families and communities after they have served their country. This man explained that he was spit upon and ridiculed for killing children when he arrived back to the United States after the Vietnam War. He said the response of many fellow Americans and family members compounded the wounds of war. The lack of support by the government over the long term also compounded the wounds of war.
In my own life, I was introduced to war by my beautiful second son. At a very young age he had a savant-like interest in war and he had the capacity to understand war. Between the ages of five and ten he would recreate events of war using detailed drawings and then he would recreate a new ending to the battle. I believe he agreed to be my son to teach me many things. In order for me to become a peacebuilder I had to have some basic understanding of war. When we went on family trips he wanted to visit the locations of wars, and so I have toured Pearl Harbour, Vimy Ridge, Arras/Scarpe, Waterloo, Juno Beach, and Dachau, to name a few. Victim and perpetrator energy need to be understood. We can’t become good peacebuilders if we have not created peace within our own soul. Peacebuilders learn their skill set and learn compassion by creating peace within their own family system. Peacebuilding requires you to find compassion for your own mother and father first, for your grandparents and all your ancestors. If you are unable to look back at both the victim and the perpetrator energy within your own family system, you will likely struggle to be effective as a peacebuilder in the workplace, in the community, or in situations of leadership. You will struggle to remain centred, balanced, and healthy emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually, and relationally if you skip this important stage of emotional development. I will continue to learn about the dynamics of transgenerational trauma, including the trauma of war, since it is the topic of the doctoral research I am engaged in through Royal Roads University.
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