Hand-Me-Down-Trauma (Legacy Trauma) & Genealogical Facts Can Lead to Some Healing

Hand-Me-Down Traumas—also known as Legacy Traumas– and Genealogy? Whatever you call them, the traumas that get passed down from one generation to another through families or other caretakers can be a mysterious source of trouble in the present. And genealogical records (now easily available on the internet) can help your Inner Detective solve some of those mysteries.

I’m reviewing some of my own genealogical detective experiences as I get ready for tomorrow’s workshop “Trauma and the Internal Family Systems Model: Releasing Personal and Legacy Burdens” at Therapy Training Boston with Percy Ballard, MD, Marushka Glissen, LICSW, and IFS developer himself Richard C. Schwartz, PhD.

Remembering…how my mom always asserted “everything was fine!” when I came back from a family therapy course looking for information about my family background. My family definitely lived by the motto: “Keep calm and carry on!.” And my mom’s parents, from what little I’d been told, had indeed married young, had 6 healthy and successful kids, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and died at ripe old ages.

But I was skeptical. My professor suggested, just as I’m suggesting to you, “Try genealogy. Just the facts from family documents and from public records of marriages, deaths, births, and military service can give you a lot of information.”

The information my inner detective found confirmed my hunch that my family, like most families, was not entirely “fine”.

And my Inner Detective turned up some information about what I’ll call “The Poison Ivy Smoke Inhalation” mystery of my childhood. Here it is:

“Be careful. You don’t want to breathe in any poison ivy smoke,” my mother would always caution me during the autumn leaf burning season. Never mind that none of my friends’ parents seemed concerned about that threat at all. To me, it was a given that Poison Ivy Smoke Inhalation was a serious and prevalent threat in the New York City suburbs where I grew up.

So, off I went to yellowed old family records and to the microfilms of United States Census records. A sad story began to take shape about both my mom’s parents. I learned that when they were little children, both my grandparents had parents and little brothers die. Here’s my poor grandmother’s story:

Little Lizzie, my grandmother, had a little brother die before she was even born. Then shortly after she was born, her father died. Her mother married again, and Lizzie soon had a little brother Arthur. Who soon died. And then her stepfather died.

After learning this story, I felt so sad for my grandmother. So I decided to use Make Believe to help her. I pretended I was Little Lizzie, and I pretended that back in the 1890’s they had Grief Groups for Children Dealing with Loss of a Parent and Loss of a Sibling. Actually, they had no such groups back then. They “sucked it up”, just coped however they could. Kept calm and carried on.

Here is Little Lizzie’s Make Believe Healing drawing.

Healing Grief Drawing

The amazing thing to me was that my mother was so surprised when I told her this story. The family trauma of all these deaths had become a covert trauma. She had not known her own mother’s and grandmother’s sad survival story because in those days people kept their chins up and “didn’t dwell on the past.”


I guess part of keeping calm and carrying on was not telling your children about the true losses of your childhood.

And the Poison Ivy Smoke Inhalation Mystery? Well, I found amongst some old family records a yellowed newspaper clipping. It said my great grandfather, a farmer, had died after suffering a mysterious respiratory ailment that came on suddenly after he burned some brambles found along the fences of his farm. The doctor, according to the clipping, thought “maybe he died because he inhaled some smoke from some poison ivy hidden amongst those brambles.”

My mother had not known of this sudden traumatic death of her own grandfather. The facts were hidden, but the post-traumatic expectation of danger awaiting in everyday life was communicated through the generations without knowing where the fear came from. My mother had inherited the lesson of this Hand-Me-Down Trauma, or Legacy Trauma, from her own mother. Surely her mother had warned her own little girl when it came time to burn the brambles on their farm, “Be careful, honey, you don’t want to breathe in any poison ivy smoke.”

So, before I head of to the workshop tomorrow, I’ve reviewed one of my stories of  Hand-Me-Down Legacy Trauma and my attempt to bring some Healing Make Believe and realistic present day sharing and processing to an old wound.

I believe it’s never too late to bring healing to old trauma stories, and part of healing is sharing. I shared this story with my mom, and I’m sharing it with you here. Thanks for listening.

Do you have a story to share?


8 thoughts on “Hand-Me-Down-Trauma (Legacy Trauma) & Genealogical Facts Can Lead to Some Healing

  1. I am happy to provide more info about my experiences if that would help your research.
    However i would only do that by private email.


  2. Thanks Ricia. These are amazing stories. I will sit now and try to get a sense of all the ways that fear was passed down in my family… covert and overt. It’s interesting to me that right before my father died he told me that if he could live his life over he wouldn’t worry about money so much. I remember he also told me that his father died young (in his fifties) because living through the depression had taken such a toll on him. “There is nothing on earth worse for a man than not being able to provide for his family.” That’s what my father said. And now, here I am, dealing with a lot of fear about money. Hmmmm. Isn’t that interesting. And yet my father seemed to far more relaxed than my mother. I always considered my father the breadwinner… the one who took care of us financially… and figured that all this happened naturally. Now I remember all of his sleepless night and the sleeping pills he became dependent on. Still he found peace later in life and wished the same for me. Legacy burdens… very interesting.


  3. This post was really interesting. We all learn in family therapy courses about how family systems interact with one another and how your family of origin affects how you think, feel, and respond to things, but I never thought about the past traumas that our parents may not even know about. Hmm. I think I have some investigation to do!


  4. This might be some kind of genealogical trauma passed on. My mom was depressed during my sister’s pregnancy, She was depressed during her third child’s pregnancy AND now that child is showing signs of isolation and inadequacy. My sister and I continue to try to help this son with very little success.


    • Indeed, it might be. There certainly are patterns in families. And a depressed mom is realistically not going to be able to be deeply present with her baby. The work being done on attachment might give you and your sister some insights and encouragement helping with that son. I hope so.


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