Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

How we can ease pain and suffering of the Troubles

We cannot just erase the past. We must encourage healing among victims and loved ones, says Leon Litvack

In the closing months of the Second World War, the Allies came upon apocalyptic places like Bergen-Belsen, which seemed like another world. The inmates who emerged from this Holocaust would never be the same again.

The noted author and Auschwitz prisoner Elie Wiesel wrote: "Had we started to speak, we would have found it impossible to stop. Having shed one tear, we would have drowned the human heart."

These people had suffered trauma and there was no clear idea about how to help them return to life, reintegrate into society, or heal.

It's understandable that their children were profoundly affected by the parents experiences.

Often they served as impressionable sounding boards for the recounting of terrifying experiences. Most downplayed normal teenage challenge or rebellion. By their very existence, they felt that they could partially compensate for their parents' losses and so many became obedient achievers.

While these kids never experienced the direct and long-lasting effects of torture, starvation, prolonged confinement and daily fear of extermination, many did suffer from transgenerational trauma.

The children of victims and survivors of the Troubles share some of these feelings and some of this trauma. There is no doubt that parenting capacity has been adversely affected by the decades of conflict.

These children have sometimes identified with, or rebelled against, certain character traits of their parents, some of whom talked about events openly, while others remained silent.

Parents often felt terror, fear and withdrawal. They felt guilt at not being able to protect loved ones and were given to feelings of anger and rage.

Their children grew up with heightened anxiety. Some experienced imagined, threatened or actual attack as a daily reality. Others experienced withdrawal and developed many of the same feelings and symptoms as their parents.

Within families, the past was addressed in different ways: some talked openly about it, others fabricated stories and many others stayed silent.

Children naturally want to know about their family's past. When this opportunity is denied, the vacuum may be filled by terrifying thoughts, images and beliefs.

It's estimated that in Northern Ireland more than 41,000 people are directly affected by the Troubles.

The past cannot simply be erased. We have a responsibility to encourage healing among victims, survivors and their children.

A new and interesting challenge is provided by the work of Centre for Trauma, Resilience and Growth at Nottingham University, which has promoted the concept of 'post-traumatic growth'.

This programme is not simply a case of accentuating the positive.

Instead, it offers a new way of thinking about how to expand human functioning. It requires the facilitator, to 'listen out' for 'growth'.

When individuals spontaneously mention benefits they may be feeling benefits from their treatment, we can reflect this back on them; this may in turn facilitate the search for further benefits.

This idea can demonstrate that victims are welcome to talk about the positive aspects as well as the negative.

In our society, this has the potential to heal some of the pain of trauma, develop resilience and strength, and renegotiate what victims, survivors, and their children can contribute to our shared future.

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