Rachel – A Case Study in the Transgenerational Transmission of Trauma

Rachel – A Case Study in the Transgenerational Transmission of Trauma

by Liz Jelinek, Ph.D.

I returned to graduate school to obtain a PhD with a desire to create a form of therapy that included the ancestors. A random email heralded an upcoming workshop at my school featuring Constellations, offered by Dan Booth Cohen, PhD. I contacted Dan immediately and discovered that Bert Hellinger had already created the therapy I had envisioned. Dan encouraged me to attend the Intensives in Germany and later in Connecticut, and two weeks later, I was in Germany at the first of many Intensives, and I knew Constellations would be my dissertation topic. I have since attended the US Constellations Conferences in both San Francisco and Seattle, and I had the privilege of presenting the early research for my doctorate, “Epigenetics: The Transgenerational Transmission of Trauma” in Seattle. This opportunity provided enthusiastic feedback and questions for attendees that helped shaped the direction of my continuing research that led to the acceptance of my dissertation in January of 2015. The following is a case study, a real life experience of what I had been researching.

Rachel [not her real name] attended my Constellations workshops, and later began to see me privately. In the beginning, Rachel cried easily, and random events often triggered hysterical outbursts. She complained of terrifying dreams and nightmares, and was haunted by unknown fears. Rachel reported she’d been in therapy most of her adult life, but rarely experienced any relief from her debilitating symptoms. She was thrilled when Constellations started to make a difference—she was finally enjoying interludes of peace.

Throughout this period of working with Rachel, I continued my research in Epigenetics, and the transgenerational transmission of trauma–my doctoral dissertation topic. Gradually, as my understanding of inherited trauma deepened, it became increasingly more apparent that Rachel was carrying her mother’s trauma—Rachel was clearly suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Although she had not personally suffered a major trauma, Rachel had PTSD!

Rachel’s mother was born into a well to do Jewish family in Vienna, Austria, in 1924. When the Anschluss, the German annexation of Austria, occurred on March 12, 1938—the day the fates of all Jews in Western Europe were changed. Rachel’s mother was one of the fortunate children who was sent from Austria by the Kindertransport, first to Belgium, and she finally arrived in the United States via the UK. Many of these children were the only members of their family to survive the Holocaust.

Rachel’s childhood was very chaotic. She was the oldest surviving daughter of five girls born to Rachel’s mother—an older sibling died before Rachel was born. Rachel took on the role of “mother” for all of her sisters, and also cared for her mother, a woman who was often more like a child herself. Rachel greatly appreciated Constellations, and was gaining a sense of peace. However, she found it difficult to honor her mother—the woman who’d given her life. When she was first asked to bow to her mother, or to her mother’s fate, she refused. But Rachel continued to work with Constellations and joined my Facilitator’s Training Group, and became an excellent representative, enthusiastically supporting the healing of others.

Last spring, Rachel’s mother celebrated her 90th birthday—a remarkable accomplishment for a woman who almost didn’t make it past age 15. Rachel flew back east to celebrate with her mother and sisters. Sadly Rachel’s mother was beginning to show signs of dementia, but it was nevertheless a happy time for all. By last fall, following her mother’s 90th birthday party, a tremendous amount of healing had taken place in Rachel, she had reconciled with her mother, and with the Holocaust, it was time for Rachel to revisit her mother—before it was too late. I encouraged her to make the trip again back east, but Rachel was less than enthusiastic—travel remained very stressful for Rachel—possibly inherited fears from her mother’s experiences during the war years.

Finally she agreed to go, and she invited the sisters to join her, but last minute conflicts prevented the sisters from coming. Rachel was not used to doing things alone, so it was with trepidation that she and her mother sat together in the visitor’s lounge at the assisted living where her mother lived. They sat together for many long hours talking and reminiscing—her mother drifting in and out of reality. Soon it was time to go, and Rachel rose to walk her mother down the long hallway back to her room. About halfway there, her mother stopped, and very lucidly said to Rachel, “You’ve come far enough, and now it’s time for you to go. I must take the rest of this journey alone. Thank you. You’ve been a wonderful daughter, but it’s time to say goodbye.”

Rachel’s mother passed away in late February of 2015, surrounded by Rachel and her sisters—a beautiful ending to a once harrowing life. May she rest in peace, and may Rachel live the rest of her life in joy, carrying with her the peace that reconciliation brings.


JelinekLiz Jelinek, PhD, is Founder & Director of the MIDWEST INSTITUTE FOR SYSTEMIC CONSTELLATIONS and is a 2015 presenter. She offers a Facilitator’s Training Program and is available for individual constellations with Playmobil™ Figures.


US Systemic Constellation Conference November 12-15

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