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Dealing with your family’s past to bring healing

By Lara Pickford-Gordon

Can you imagine doing research on your family and finding out there are patterns for alcoholism, gambling, divorce, or sexual abuse?

This is what happened when Donna DeBartolo, spiritual director/facilitator at the Mercy Centre for Healing the Whole Persons, Colorado Springs, Colorado mapped her genogram. The Centre is run by the Society of Missionaries of Mercy, a lay religious organisation founded by Fr William ‘Bill’ Jarema.

A genogram is not simply genealogy, recording dates of births and deaths. “The genogram is the story behind the dates, behind those people,” DeBartolo explained last Saturday at the ‘Exploration of the Genogram: Healing Family Relationships’ workshop hosted by the Archdiocesan Family Life Commission. The two-day workshop January 18–19 was held at the Seminary of St John Vianney and Uganda Martyrs, Mt St Benedict.

“A lot of times you don’t see what goes on in the family until you map it out,” she said. DeBartolo candidly shared her story.

“The reason I did a genogram is my daughter was getting a divorce and I went crying to the priest and saying ‘my daughter is getting a divorce and nobody in our family has gotten a divorce’, and Father said, ‘I think you better do a genogram’ so I started asking questions.” This was how she found out about an uncle married four times.

Another revelation came while driving her aunts to a casino, she overheard them joking about going to the casino and becoming like “pa” (her grandfather) who had gambled and lost the house. It was bought back by another relative.

DeBartolo urged persistence when families are reluctant to talk about the past. Her mother was not very forthcoming with information, but her father was. DeBartolo advised participants to seek the stories of parents, grandparents and if necessary, go to nieces and nephews. When starting on family history she recommended starting with the positive questions as this will encourage people to be open.

Participants had to go through a series of questions as they began examining their family history. They had to ask themselves: How does your family grieve; How do you grieve?

DeBartolo said, “You are your mother and you are your father. Does everybody know that? I want you to admit that because some people don’t like to admit it.” She added later, “Whether you want to take on who they are, what they are, that’s up to you. You have a choice”.

Denial can be a way of distancing one’s self from becoming like parents, but she cautioned, “If you deny it; you become it. If you don’t become it, you marry it; and if you don’t marry it, you’re gonna find some place to work with it, and either in the workplace or church.”


Your blessings and burdens

She told participants their pain must be embraced. Illustrating the points raised using her own life, she disclosed she married an alcoholic and her four daughters did the same. Her husband’s alcoholism was not acknowledged although her mother warned her before she got married.

She said, “I did not believe her. I said ‘mom, he just likes to social drink on the weekends. He goes to work every day’…Later I found out he was”.

Patterns in families have to be broken. Participants were asked to note their ‘Blessings and Burdens: Looking for Graces in your Genogram’.

DeBartolo said the blessing from her mother was a love of cooking; the burden was low self-esteem. “According to her, women didn’t have to go to school, didn’t have to do anything except take care of their husband and children,” she said.

The blessing from her father was that he was a peacemaker, who showed forgiveness. This enabled her to forgive her husband after he left her. The burden was being a workaholic–he always had two jobs and she followed this.  When she asked her sons, what blessing they got from their father, they could not think of anything. DeBartolo said she prompted them to think of the skills they had as an electrician, plumber and carpenter. They responded that “dad made us work all the time because we built a house”.

Some of the other questions explored: How did their mom and dad handle conflict? Did they use blame, criticism, silence?

When dad was upset how did he behave? How about mom?

Was there an alienation of a certain family member e.g. alcoholism, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, interfaith marriage, divorce etc?

Participants had to prepare their genogram with four generations. They were instructed to note illnesses that ran in the family and conflicts. DeBartolo said anger and depression was “carried on from family to family”.

“You have to look at the pattern because the Bible tells us generation upon generation upon generation will hang on to the family wound or sin until somebody becomes aware and breaks the pattern,” she said.

A Prayer for Departed Souls and Prayer for Reconciliation were included.