Victoria Day morning, I drank my coffee as I watched families walk along in the soft spring light. I listened to the rise and fall of their voices. Siblings bickering, lovers laughing and holding hands, a little girl riding her push bicycle that I wish I'd had as a kid instead of training wheels. It was a quiet Monday and I was resting from an intensive work weekend.
I am an instructor at Clearmind International. Last weekend, we held an intensive family origin project based on Family Systems Theory for our first year students. Each student spends time researching and then presenting about the history and stories of their families. I had the incredible honour and priviledge of diving into the family systems of 4 students. Through these presentations, I got to hear the experiences that these students' parents, grandparents and great grandparents had; their stories, their lives, the losses they've endured, the grief they felt or didn't feel, the creative ways they had to survive, the way they celebrated, what they valued, how they loved. I supported the presenter to see how these stories influenced their own experiences growing up, their own belief system and what was transmitted to them consciously and unconsciously through habits learned from their ancestors and through epigenetics.
As I listened to the sounds of people out and about on the street, enjoying the sunny fresh May morning, I was reminded again that we are all carrying the stories of our ancestors. The little girl riding her bike on 10th Avenue was once me, a small blonde pig tailed hair girl of 7. I was learning how to ride my bike on Cumberland Road in Victoria, as my Opa, Louis Herlaar, ran behind me holding onto the seat and then letting go so I could pedal freely alone. As soon as I knew he had let go I would get scared, the handle bars would turn and I would fall. Opa would come running, hug and kiss me, I would get back on the bike and we would try again. I remember, even then, the importance of me learning to ride a bicycle. Being from a Dutch family and having spent already a few months in the Netherlands by this young age it felt like an important milestone.
I was oblivious to my Opa's story. To me, he was my loving, funny, generous, cigar smoking and sometimes serious Opa. He was my hero and I loved him so much. At that young age, I had no idea what he had already experienced in his 62 years of life. And unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to ask him because he passed away only 5 years later.
As I got older, I'd hear from my Oma that Opa had been a difficult man to live with. He was difficult because he would shut down and not speak for days at a time and then when he would talk again he wouldn't say what was the matter. I remember as I grew up, my dad saying to me, 'You can always talk to us, Jul'. And Oma would often say that she hoped that I found a husband with whom I could communicate with deeply. I didn't really understand this. It felt strange to me that this man that I loved so dearly and had such joyful memories of would shut down and not talk to my Oma who I also loved. I found it incredibly difficult because even though I was receiving the message that I could talk to my parents, my throat often closed off and I found it difficult to express myself. As I got older, my ability to voice my thoughts and feelings did not get easier. I experienced a rich inner life of big overwhelming feelings that seemed to get stuck inside me. This led to depression, anxiety and a general fear that no one really understood me and relationships with men where I never knew how to communicate authentically.
In 2015, a little over 20 years since Opa had passed away, I did my own family of origin presentation. I was in the first year of Clearmind's counsellor training program and my goal for the year was to Find My Voice. I spent a couple months researching my family. Having spent a lot of time in the Netherlands with my dad and his parents as a kid, I thought I had a general sense of what life was like but I was pleasantly surprised that there was more for me to discover. I found that as I asked specific questions to aunts and uncles and my dad, I discovered all sorts of new information.
My Opa grew up in Vlaardingen, which is a town close to Rotterdam. This part of the Netherlands was occupied by Germany in 1940. Opa would have been 14 years old. The stories are that my Opa's father was active in the Dutch resistance. And that soldiers would be lined up on street corners and the children, including Opa, would run messages back and forth between the resistance members. In 1944, the Hunger Winter or the Dutch Famine struck the western provinces of Holland and more than 20,000 people died of cold and starvation. Opa was 17 years old. There are stories of the Dutch eating tulip bulbs and travelling long distances on bicycles to trade for any sort of food from the surrounding farms. My Opa's mother is said to have nearly starved because she gave what little food they had to her husband and 6 children.
In 2015, I was 34 and hearing these stories about my 17 year old Opa, I began to have a greater understanding and compassion of the fear and grief he must have felt.
In 1947, 2 years after Holland was liberated from German occupation, my Oma and Opa married. And shortly after that my Opa left for Indonesia to serve for the Dutch military. Indonesia had declared its independence from being a Dutch colony and this resulted in a 4 year war, which has been described by some as a bloody guerilla war.
As a child, I had heard stories of Opa in Indonesia and these were often romanticized. There were photos of him with monkeys and with his fellow soldiers and the stories were always those of comraderie and jokes. But as I began researching the war, I realized the brutality of it and I discovered that Opa had been a sergeant. The story is that Opa was a changed man by the time he came back to Holland at the age of 23. I cannot even begin to imagine the brutality that he must have witnessed and been a part of. For nearly a decade Opa, Louis Herlaar, lived his life surrounded by war, struggle and famine.
No wonder he had a hard time expressing himself and no wonder he shut down.
I have read that the Dutch Indonesian war was one of shame for the Netherlands. In Family Systems Theory, we carry not only the pain from our own family but also that of our country and people. Shame, unexpressed grief and rules that the family uses to protect themselves from these feelings are unconsciously passed down through family members if they are ignored, pushed aside and not talked about. Grief, shame, sadness and anger do not go away when they are not talked about or expressed. They pass down through the family system. Sometimes they get held quietly and sometimes they begin to get expressed through different forms of acting out or acting in.
My depression and anxiety was a form of acting in. I was holding, in part, my Opa's unexpressed grief from the wars. It felt like a massive unseen and unknown pressure that existed inside me. I did not understand it nor was I very aware of it. My difficulty to communicate had different contributing factors. But what I noticed was that when I shared the story of my Opa; when my mum and dad and I began talking about what life may have been like for him; when I had loving and curious people witness my family presentation and ask questions, something shifted for me.
I began to use my voice. The lump in my throat, when I have something to say, is now mostly only a pebble. I can clearly communicate my feelings and my experience with a clear voice and can trust myself to choose the people who will hear me and hold me there. Through uncovering the stories about my family and Opa I stepped into my goal of Finding My Voice. I also discovered a new perspective on my family. I love, honour and respect my Opa even more now, I understand the reason my dad would tell me to talk and why my Oma kept telling me to choose a husband who I could communicate with at a deep level.
When you uncover the stories about your family; when you look beyond a person's actions and get curious about what happened; when you widen your perspective about yourself and question where you came from and the stories of your ancestors, you create an opening for new perspectives, experiences and opportunities.