Lifelines for Healing Collective Trauma

Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger

Last week’s post focused on an understanding of two types of trauma: personal trauma and secondary trauma.  Given our experience over the past fourteen months—and much longer—we turn our attention today to healing from intergenerational trauma and collective trauma.

Intergenerational trauma occurs when your parents or grandparents (or even your more distant ancestors), experienced trauma of such great a magnitude that they could not adequately metabolize their terror, rage and grief.  Immigration, poverty, suicide, physical or sexual abuse, alcohol or drug addiction, or the tragic loss of children at an early age; indeed, any unbearable family trauma will live on in the bodies of the children and grandchildren of those directly affected.

Given this, we can imagine a vast scope of collective trauma that lives in us whether or not we acknowledge it: the Holocaust, unceasing wars since the end of World War II, the mass incarceration and systemic oppression of people of color, apartheid in South Africa, the nuclear disasters of Fukushima and Chernobyl, and, climate change of catastrophic proportions, to name but a few. Today, world-wide economic instability and the coronavirus encircle the globe.

In order to acknowledge these accumulated collective traumas that live in our bodies and minds, we need a network of supportive friendships and spiritual practices. We need a daily influx of poetry, song, and beauty, by which the human spirit can be uplifted. We need hope and a profound sense of belonging with our very own ancestors, with our actual neighbors, our religious and spiritual communities, and our extended and nuclear families. The greater the sense of belonging and vital participation in the communities that we actually belong to, the safer we will feel as we dare to acknowledge the level of pain, grief and fear that we are coping with. 

The more we are able to give voice both to our longings and our hopes, the more we will be able to consent to enter into a depth of collective mourning.  Profound mourning in collective gatherings paradoxically gives rise to hope. Mourning together reduces shame, opens our hearts to the sheer magnitude of our love for the world, and deepens our desire to act together in a responsive and responsible way, rather than in an outraged and reactive way.

In short, the lifeline for collective trauma is collective awareness, collective mourning and collective action. 

Many of us watched in awe as the collective creativity of various cultures found ways to promote courage and resilience.  I’m remembering with gratitude the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreaks, where the people of Rome went out onto their balconies and began singing arias to their neighbors. It was so quintessentially Italian! They tapped into the collective wealth of the history of Italian opera, with all its tragedy and inexpressible beauty and sang to each other.

Others gave away their gifts for free on the internet. Webinars on every imaginable self-care topic, daily meditations and prayer, yoga classes, rich poetry exchanges; somehow the internet became our village green, our commonwealth, where we could go to be with others and not feel so alone. There we could gaze into the faces of others, seeing them eye to eye, without their faces half-covered with masks.

Our relational capacities can unleash tremendous power for healing and resilience, when we entrust ourselves to a process of mutual listening, speaking and caring, when we come into one another’s presence committed to speaking honestly and courageously about what we have found to be true. When we join our community with open hearts and open ears, we join as humble participants, knowing that the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.  We are just one small part of the whole, but every voice matters.

A living faith functions as an indispensable lifeline for healing from trauma.  Anyone who loves scripture will be uplifted by the stories that have sustained people of faith throughout the ages—stories of a trustworthy God who has delivered generations from every kind of devastation: from the ruin of the land (Jeremiah), from the intolerable oppression of enforced slavery (Exodus), and from countless personal afflictions (the Gospel narratives). The witness of scripture is that our merciful God listens to the cries of his people.

Likewise, when we turn to God in prayer in both prosperity and adversity, we know in our bodies (not just our minds)—in our whole nervous system, from our gut to our brainstem, to our limbic system, to our whole embodied self—that we have a “relational home” in God.  We can take our sorrow, outrage and anguish to the One who has promised to take us to heart.

While collective trauma has the capacity to intensify or re-ignite our individual unhealed trauma, so also collective restorative practices can have a profound healing impact on personal trauma. That which is most deeply personal becomes part of the communal lament of the people of God through the ages.  Whenever we consent to descend into our collective grief with a community we love, within the secure boundaries of ritual space, hope and trust are paradoxically restored.

Those of us who have witnessed the power of the gospel in our lives and in the lives of countless people we love need to embody the hope that the gospel has given us.  We who have witnessed its power to bring deep refreshment in times of drought, creativity and new life when we least expect it, and the sheer grit to get through hard times, are called upon to be its witnesses.  We are called upon to testify to the foundational lifeline of trust in a God whose faithfulness has carried generations of our forebears through trauma and tragedy.  In community, we can share with one another the paradoxical comfort of participating in the sufferings and sorrows of our God as we have come to know him in Jesus Christ.  We are given the spiritual solace of a relational home in God’s love and in the mutual care of a whole community.  We are also given countless opportunities for joining our voices in prayers of lament, in which our grief and rage and pain can all be expressed. By God’s grace our collective mourning will melt the frozen numbness of our hearts and paradoxically restore a sense of agency and hope.

If we are to be sustained through the suffering of traumatic experience, it is only because we have been able to ground our lives in hope. We are given access to this final hope when we entrust our lives to the God who created us, the One who has redeemed us, and the One who sustains us every day of our lives. Healing, whether, physical, emotional or spiritual is always set within the unimaginable reaches of God’s salvation.  It is through the promises of the Gospel that we have access to the One in whom we can place our trust.

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
    whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
    of whom shall I be afraid?
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
    In the land of the living!
Wait for the Lord;
    be strong, and let your heart take courage;
    yea, wait for the Lord! (Psalm 27)


Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger, Ph.D., an ordained minister in the PCUSA, is a Spiritual Director at Princeton Theological Seminary and Charlotte W. Newcombe Professor of Pastoral Theology Emerita.  Originally trained as a pastoral counselor, Deborah taught courses in pastoral theology and pastoral care at Princeton Seminary for 25 years. She now offers trauma-informed spiritual care to both individuals and small groups. This post is adapted from her article:  “Trauma-Informed Spiritual Care: Lifelines for a Healing Journey,” Theology Today, February, 2021.

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