Sunday, June 1, 2008

Trauma proliferation: God help us

For this is what we do. Put one foot forward and then the other... Add our little consequence to the tides of good and evil that flood and drain the world. Drag our shadowed crosses into the hope of another night. Push our brave hearts into the promise of a new day... for a truth other than our own. With longing: the pure, ineffable yearning to be saved. For so long as fate keeps waiting, we live on. God help us. God forgive us. We live on.

G. David Roberts, Shantaram

I'm presenting a paper this weekend (published by Omega Journal of Death & Dying) at a social stress conference, and I am listening to paper after paper of research on stressful life situations. And you know, there isn't anything that approaches the trauma of child death. Well, actually there is one... Depressed Affect and Historical Loss among Northern American Indigenous Adolescents.  This paper moved me, and I was intrigued by the idea of collective trauma in the context of child death across cultures and time.

Loss, of course, comes with his often-companion- trauma. Like Jung's collective unconscious, historical trauma is intergenerational, unconscious, and unrecognized.  According to Professor Maria Braveheart, historical trauma is the "cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the life span and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma".  

This concept is a similar sociological construct as that suffered collectively by African Americans who were enslaved and their offspring, Jewish people as a result of the Holocaust, and Japanese Americans who were sequestered in California camps at the beginning of World War II.  It's the criminal result of colonized and coerced oppression versus voluntary immigration (ie, Italians and Irish).

American Indian families suffered immense losses at their core. Braveheart cited government-mandated boarding schools, wherein children were forcibly removed from their family homes, as a major factor in the historical trauma. Here she says, "gender roles and family relationships were impaired at the boarding schools, where the focus was on the European tradition of male-female relationships and not the Indian tradition of holding women and children sacred".  (I do so prefer this model...)

These boarding schools exacerbated the traumatic effects of familial separation by stripping the dignity and identities of the children, forbidding their language, sanctioning their ritual and religion. Grandchildren of the boarding schools suffer for the pains of the past through complex pathways; they suffer as a consequence of their own parents' suffering and subjugation.

Health ailments such as type II diabetes were common among American Indians, perhaps because of the dramatic changes in their natural diet; but perhaps also, at least in part, due to the extreme physiological stress.  Psychopathology of chronic stress and even incidental trauma is well documented in empiric studies and include shame, guilt, depression, anxiety, loss of control, low self-esteem, emotional numbing, anger, suicidal ideation, and somatic illnesse-mirrors grief in many ways.

That's on a massive, macro scale. How about individual families?  It makes me wonder about child death in families, and the intergenerational effects of trauma that we pass on to our children. It also incites curiosity about those children who were wounded by the distant past. For example, my mother's mother, was a Sicilian immigrant born just after the turn of the 20th Century. It was a time when many children died before their first birthday. In fact, some families withheld naming their children until post-1st-birthday to ensure they would live.  My grandmother had her first baby around 1931.  Her name was Josephine (1). Josephine died of pneumonia at two years of age.  Her next baby was born in 1933.  Her name was also Josephine (2). She died at around three months of age. My grandmother, fraught with the superstitions of a demon-filled world, believed that evil spirits took the baby because she forgot to pray. Her third baby was born in 1934. She named that baby Mary, believing that the name Josephine might be cursed.  Her fourth baby, born in 1936, she renamed, again, Josephine (3), the namesake of her dead sisters. This would be my mother.  My grandmother was a cold, detached woman. I never heard her express love- she rarely smiled- she was not warm or nurturing. In fact, by today's standards, she was physically and mentally abusive. I cannot help but wonder if her behaviors were manifestations and effects of those losses. And what about the effects on my own mother? How have those effects translated, mutated, and contributed to the nature of my own relationship with Josephine (3)?

Len Pearlin says that stress proliferation- or higher on the continuum, I'd posit, trauma proliferation- can occur three ways. One, through secondary means, or multiple issues that arise concomitant to a traumatic event. Two, it can occur through succession of stressors, such as serial events, interrelated domino effects of a traumatic incident.  And finally, there is well-documented empiric evidence to support the idea of the diffusion of traumatic stressors within a system, such as the family, a type of vicarious trauma contagion.  What is missing from this theory is intergenerationality of traumatic events, the series of historic events wherein an event triggers a response which triggers an event which triggers a response, and so on. What is missing is an examination of how trauma affects both the psychological and the neurocognitive state of a mother, let's say, and how those sometimes neurocidal changes impinge on the prefrontal cortices, limbic systems, and reptilian or paleomammalian regions (MacLean's triune brain theory) of her children's developing brains. It is something that, certainly, warrants further study.

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The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

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