Unburdening From Intergenerational Trauma: A First-Gen Journey

Featured Illustration: Hanifa Abdul Hameed

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First-generation immigrant household. South Asian. Eldest daughter. I am sure that some of you are more than familiar with the life that that entails. Many of us have grown up hearing how our parents’ and grandparents’ generation struggled to create a better life for us having moved halfway across the globe, and many of us to this day still see them struggle — but more so with the mental toll that it has taken on them. Trauma and depression sit embedded in their lives, often hiding behind their stories and their relationships with us.

I grew up quickly seeing my mother overwhelmed with depression and her telling me all the ways this disease had come to follow her around. For a long time, I felt as if I was a burden to her as she worked tirelessly to raise my siblings and I, and I tried my best to mend our relationship when it crumbled, which was far too frequent in my teenage years. My father, I knew, had been working from the age of sixteen to provide for his family, and he had somehow one-upped himself by working almost seven days a week for the next twenty-one years after starting a family. Naturally, many of my aspirations in life circled around the main idea of providing them with the comfort they never had — retiring my father, unburdening my mother.

However, it is only this year after graduating that I realised that these aspirations can only be reached through pursuing my own happiness. I realised that one of the most important outcomes of their hardships was the fact that they had given me the privilege to seek out the future that I desired, be they unaware of this themselves. We may be stuck in the sequence of education, career, marriage, etc., perhaps trying to follow some idealistic future they have pictured for us, but it is nowhere near as intense and constricted as how their lives panned out. We have been gifted the luxury of time: time to grow.

Our parents’ trauma is not for us to consume, but to learn from.

It should not be a burden to share, but something to actively engage in growing past, and helping your parents grow past it too. Some may argue that it is not our job to “raise” our parents, but it would be insulting to suggest that they need raising. If I were to aid a friend in the same way, I am not raising them. Human beings need nurturing at every stage of their life. Islamically speaking, it is our duty to show compassion and look after one another simply as human beings, so would you not extend that same compassion to your own parents? We will not be perfect parents ourselves, as our parents were not before us, but what we will have had is the time to introspect, knowing deep within the mistakes that we have no desire in replicating.

Part and parcel of adulthood is realising that our parents are not perfect people, that they are human beings with shortcomings like us all. Allowing yourself to contextualise and see their mistakes as a result of their life experiences makes it much easier to move on with life and brush away resentment. Unburdening yourself allows you to grow as a person and come to the conclusion that life is far too short to not seize all its opportunities and goodness that it has to offer — and being an ethnic minority in this country, opportunities are few and far between as it is!

Another thing, acknowledging that their hardships may have been extraordinarily painful should not invalidate our own. What we experience is still valid; it is what we do after to heal that is important and what makes us different from past generations who did not have the comfort to do so. Now, I am not assuming that it’s easy, you will most certainly have your own demons to conquer. Seek help. There are very few qualified therapists within our respective communities, but they are there, be it someone who will understand you culturally or religiously. However, you cannot allow yourself to linger over your hardships as if they are some prized possessions.

There is no one solution to dealing with intergenerational trauma. There may not be any answers to find or any people to blame. Choosing to live your life unburdened is the one favour you can do for yourself. Peace is not waiting for you in the shadows of the past, but in the hopeful arms of the future.