Three years ago today, I spent the day in bed, alternately crying and sleeping. I didn’t want to go anywhere, see anyone, or do anything. My mother had passed away two weeks before, right before Christmas, and I was on the verge of depression.
While you might read this and think my reaction unsurprising, you’d be wrong, because my mother wasn’t a typical parent. She was a Holocaust survivor, and life with her had been, to put it kindly, difficult. So difficult, in fact, that family and friends couldn’t comprehend why I didn’t feel a sense of relief after her death. “Why are you so sad that a woman who physically and emotionally abused you for your entire life passed away?”
Truth be told, I didn’t know why either. I had thought about how I might respond to her death for several years, as her dementia advanced and my caregiving activities increased. I anticipated feeling relief and freedom; the sadness and guilt that actually gripped me took me by surprise.
My reaction to my mother’s passing is just one of the complicated ways in which intergenerational trauma presents itself in the descendants of Holocaust survivors. I was traumatized by my damaged parent (remember the adage that the victim becomes the perpetrator?), but I was also burdened with guilt when she passed away and a feeling that I didn’t do enough, even though I had pretty much sacrificed my marriage and more for her. I missed her exact time of death by two minutes because I had gone home that night to get some sleep but even that act of self-care made me feel like a terrible daughter.
Intergenerational trauma isn’t only about what happened to past generations; it’s about what’s happening to the current generation and what will continue to happen in future generations. For children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren of those who survived the Holocaust, intergenerational trauma means living with the invisible weight of a trauma they didn’t experience first-hand, every single day.
What does that really mean? Imagine feeling stressed about having enough food to make it through a catastrophic event—but you have no real reason to expect such an event will occur anytime soon. Or contemplate hyperventilating at the thought of travel, worried that you’ll never be able to return home and you’ll be forever separated from your family, even though there’s nothing that indicates this scenario will play out. Both of these situations ring true for many second-generation (2G) Holocaust survivors.
It may surprise you to know that intergenerational trauma doesn’t only present itself psychologically; there are physical and health-related effects as well. Children of Holocaust survivors have lower levels of cortisol, a hormone that helps humans manage stress, making them less able to handle stressful situations (good thing I chose a career in public relations early on LOL). 2Gs also have been found to have higher rates of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and other chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and fibromyalgia.
In my coaching practice, I work with 2Gs and 3Gs (the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors) who want to move past the intergenerational traumas transmitted to them by their parents and grandparents. No two experiences are the same. But they seek me out because I understand what they’ve been through. I am one of them.
To me, intergenerational trauma is similar to other hidden disabilities and illnesses: Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist or that the person isn’t suffering. There is no greater joy for me than helping someone release their trauma and change their outlook on life. And I believe everyone has a right to heal.