Ancestral Narrative Building: A Path to Healing Generational Trauma By Lyrica Fils-Aimé, LCSW on 11/23/21 - 8:00 PM

“I am so afraid to be like the men in my family when I am angry. I find myself holding in so much rage because I do not want to be like my dad or my grandfather. I also refuse to be part of the angry Black man stereotype.”
“What didn’t you like about their rage?” I ask my client to examine his narrative of his ancestors’ rage in order to understand his own.
“The way it was framed in my family is that it got them in trouble. It got them both killed.”

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We take time to process these situations about the men in my client’s lineage. Both his father and grandfather had been killed at the hands of the state, and my client began to believe at an early age that if he had less rage inside of him, he would live longer and safer.

I tell him I am not convinced that their rage was unwarranted, knowing that the United States has unjust systems that impact the lives of Black and Brown people daily. I believe that micro- and macro-aggressions pile up and that our reactions, or non-reactions, to them can be survival tactics or indications of insidious trauma. And we can still create new narratives around their deaths and “rage.” We have to understand the social and physical contexts they were born into and living in, to make sure we can make these claims about their rage, since it is coming up in therapy. Although I can guide him through it, my client needs some deep ancestral healing, and he has to do it himself. He has to be the one who is committed to researching, asking questions, and making meaning.

I start by creating a reading list for the client. I read the books, too. At first, he doesn’t quite see the point. I explain that we have to study the time and place in which both of these ancestors lived. We read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, Langston Hughes’ The Ways of White Folks, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God in order to get a sense of the time periods his family lived through. We research articles from the relevant time periods in the cities his family resided in and take a deep look at the cultural climate of the cities. We find research about the impacts of Jim Crow laws, the GI Bill, and redlining, policies that impacted his family directly and indirectly.

“I have only heard the stories and the warnings from my mom, aunts, uncles, and grandma. Stay inside! Stay calm! Don’t be too forward! Don’t speak up! We don’t want you to get killed out there! Reading about other people from the same time period gives me more information than what was passed down to me. Black people were unsafe even if they did stay calm and remained inside. My family was so fearful of more death that they played into the respectability politics—‘Be good and nothing will happen.’ But the truth is, things still happened.”

This kind of ancestral digging creates a new narrative that allows the client to build, expand, and contextualize his sense of self. Prior to our research, he had limited information from which to make sense of his childhood and the messages he received both implicitly and explicitly. The messages he received growing up are important and tell him a lot about his lineage, but he needs to do more digging to get a fuller story. Intentionally getting new information about people similar to him and his generational trauma allows him to make space for new framing of his paternal lineage.

“I learned about the political climate my grandfather was living in. I saw an article about a man killed for looking at a White woman the wrong way in the city we lived in. I realized that my grandfather might not have been angry, he might have been just living his life, and that there are not actually any stories about him being angry or reactive at all.”

Though he has limited people alive to discuss this with, we create a list of questions he has for his extended family. My client is able to make new meaning about his father by doing some interviewing of distant family members. He asks about the time periods, the rituals they had in their family related to his Black American culture, and anecdotes about his grandfather and father. He records their responses to his questions in order to keep a record of what he found for his future son. He reckons with the fact that after his grandfather was unjustly killed by the county police, his father became an advocate to make changes in his community. His father became an activist and fought for the rights of Black Americans in his city.

“My mom always made it sound like when we speak up we are likely to be hurt, because we are putting ourselves at risk, but that is because she had trauma from my dad’s dying during a protest. She always seems so strong, but my aunt told me she was different after my dad died. She didn’t want him to go that day, and he told her he had to make a better life for his kids. Understanding that my father was fighting for what is right has totally changed what I understand about my anger.”


The old adage of becoming your parents is more than just a saying. Clients and therapists alike carry forward and live ancestral history and messages that have the power to impact and influence triggers. We may find ourselves reacting similarly to our ancestors, or reacting completely opposite from the way they did, without a lot of knowledge about why they acted the way they did in the first place.

Ancestral trauma impacts us in ways we don’t realize, and we need to investigate our lineages, whether we have direct access or need to gain access through texts and articles, to make sense of who we are and who we want to become. And therapists, along with developing an anti-racist framework that appreciates the racial climate of the country in which the client resides, must guide the ancestral trauma towards ancestral resilience when the client is ready to do their deep exploration.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections