Healing the Damage Caused by Family Secrets
By Lisa Bonnice, host of the Ancestral Healing Summit
It started with a private message from a stranger. Someone was asking me, via Ancestry.com’s messaging platform, about my great-grandfather on my maternal side. He wanted to know if my ancestor had died in a coal mine explosion that killed 172 men in 1924 in Castle Gate, Utah. If so, we might be related.
I began to respond that, no, none of my ancestors ever ventured further west than Michigan, and my great-grandfather was certainly never a coal miner. I didn’t even bother to ask my mom before responding because I would have known details like that, if they existed in our family’s history.
Maybe not. Mom didn’t talk about her dad and his branch of the family tree. All I knew was that he was born in Scotland and settled in Michigan, where our family took root. He deserted his wife and children when my mother was a young teen, leaving her without the love and care of a father. I only met him once, briefly, when I was very small. To us, he was persona non grata.
Utah and mine explosions never entered into it.
Something about the stranger’s message piqued my interest, though, so I began to dig through Ancestry’s records. Sure enough, there were the names of my Scottish kin on ship manifests and, eventually, death certificates — deaths that took place in Utah. Thus began my obsessive interest in genealogy and, eventually, ancestral healing.
I found that my great-grandparents and their children (my grandpa among them) and other members of the family had, indeed, made the trek all the way across the U.S., after emigrating from Scotland, to the wild west — to the coal-mining town Castle Gate — where Butch Cassidy had once robbed the mining office payroll.
They came to the States in 1921, after a nationwide coal mine strike in the UK forced closures and left men with no way to feed their children. My great-grandmother’s brother was superintendent at the Castle Gate mine, so my great-grandfather William decided to up sticks and transplant his family to Utah.
His wife, my great-grandmother Helen (after whom my mother was named, and I never knew that), died of cancer a year after they arrived. She was only 39. She left behind four children, one of whom was only a toddler. They buried her on my grandpa’s eighteenth birthday.
Half a year later, in March 1924, work at the Castle Gate mine was slow so my then-teenage grandpa was laid off. Only men with families to support were sent into the mine. A half hour into their shift, the town was shaken by two thunderous booms, one after another. Everyone in the town, including my grandpa — who was playing football with friends — knew what that meant. The initial explosion was so powerful it shot a mining car across the valley and embedded it into the mountainside a mile away. Everyone inside the mine was killed, instantly.
My grandpa and his sisters were now orphaned, in a strange land, depending on the charity of an uncle they barely knew. Their father was buried on his daughter’s thirteenth birthday.
I found newspaper articles from all over the U.S. with headlines like the one that screamed Searchers recover bodies at Castle Gate mine disaster: tomb reveals torn victims of coal blast. This was a big deal. Almost 200 men had died in one of the largest coal mine explosions in U.S. history and my great-grandfather was one of them, along with his brother and nephew, whose families came over from Scotland with him.
I never knew any of this. Mom never said a word.
In fairness, I don’t know how many of these details she knew, as her father probably didn’t pass on much family history. But once I approached her about it, she did admit to knowing about the mine explosion that killed her grandfather, and that she was named after her grandmother. I had to learn these important details from strangers.
I was lucky that my grandpa’s story was so well documented. Because I’ve been able to learn a lot of details about what happened to him and his family, I was able to recognize, psychologically, why my mom was the way she was. Of course she developed “father issues” given what her childhood was like. Knowing this helped me work through many of my “mother issues” and I’m grateful for that.
What puzzled me, though, were the things that couldn’t be explained away by psychology. Like, why was my mom so horribly claustrophobic? Why did I have such an exaggerated startle-response to loud noises? Why have I always been haunted by dreams of the UK, even though I’d never been there?
I tore ferociously into my genealogy research, putting the pieces together one by one. The more I dug in, the more information about ancestral patterning and epigenetics I unearthed. I learned that trauma reactions can be inherited, even without the descendants of the original trauma survivor knowing anything about it.
I learned that my grandpa endured one incredible loss after another in a very short time — his homeland and loving relatives, his mother and his youth, his father and any sense of safety — not to mention the survivor’s guilt he must have suffered. After all, if work hadn’t been slow, he would have died with his father, uncle, and cousin.
Is it any wonder he was able to easily abandon his own wife and children, without looking back, when his own childhood had been ripped away from him and he was expected to shut down his feelings, suck it up and move forward, only to find yet another disaster waiting around the corner?
I don’t think Mom ever knew any of this. By the time I discovered these stories, she was so addled with dementia that she seemed unable to hear me when I tried to tell her. She was so furious with her father and driven by hatred for him that it wouldn’t sink in. To the end of her life, part of her was an abandoned little girl who never knew how her dad could do that to her.
I, on the other hand, can look at these two with deep compassion. How could he do otherwise? His emotional psyche must have been completely fractured. My heart breaks for them, and for the rest of the family — cousins and aunts I never met because of the estrangement, people who would also probably never know the story and how it may have affected them.
Most importantly, I can look at myself differently. My grandpa, who I was told didn’t care to meet me more than the one time, comes to me in my dreams to assure me that nothing was further from the truth. He tried, but Mom was so bitter by that time that she wouldn’t let him in. So it’s not that I’m unlovable, as my mom felt she was. It’s that an explosive rift in the family caused these two people to be completely unable to communicate.
I’ve visited Castle Gate a couple times. The town itself isn’t there anymore, but the lonely cemetery is, which was built directly over Mine #2 where the explosion occurred. When walking through the graves of the miners who died under my feet to visit the final resting place of William and Helen — ancestors I never knew existed before a stranger contacted me — I heard echoes of the voices of all who were buried there, “Don’t forget us … we have stories to tell.”
Not only do they have stories to tell, they have families to share with us. That stranger turned out to be the husband of my third cousin once removed. Her grandpa was my grandpa’s cousin, who came over on the boat with him, and who died in the explosion. We met when I was there and I learned that I have lots of family in Utah I never knew about!
In fact, I have family all over the world that I’ve discovered through my genealogy research, some of whom I’ve actually met. I’ve gone from being someone who doesn’t have any family at all on my mother’s side, to someone with kin all over the globe, many of whom are just as excited as I am to connect.
Through ancestral healing, I feel more whole. I no longer flinch with every loud sound, and I’ve visited the lands I’ve dreamed about, walking in my ancestors’ footsteps. Instead of feeling like I’ve been cast adrift, floating alone in a sea of disconnect, I feel the roots of my family tree grounding me.
And, because of all that I’ve learned by hosting the Ancestral Healing Summit, and interviewing such wise and knowledgeable experts in the field, I can rest assured that my mom and her dad are together on the other side of the veil, rooting for me and cheering me on as they watch my healing process ripple outward to touch everyone else in my family, which then ripples out to touch their extended families, and on and on and on …
After all, we’re all connected.
Lisa Bonnice is an award-winning writer and humorist, winning two Excellence Awards from MSNBC.com during her tenure there as a news writer/associate producer. She also traveled the country as a stand-up comedian, working with the likes of Tim Allen and Steve Harvey.
Her first book, Shape Shifting: Reclaiming Your Perfect Body, includes a foreword by Neale Donald Walsch, with whom she worked within the organization he founded, Humanity's Team, as the Regional Director of the entire southern portion of the United States. Her award-winning True Crime novel, Fear of Our Father, was featured on the Investigation Discovery Network. Her newest novel, a metaphysical comedy called The Poppet Master, includes a foreword by Marc Allen of New World Library, and is available wherever books are sold.
Lisa hosted her own podcast, Shape Shifting, on BlogTalkRadio, featuring such guests as Lynne McTaggart, Edgar Mitchell, and Neale Donald Walsch. She has been a program host with The Shift Network for four years, where she has interviewed luminaries such as Gregg Braden, Robert Thurman, and Stanislov Grof.
Her current writing project — a novel tentatively titled The Maxwell Curse and based on actual events found in her family tree — spurred Lisa into an almost obsessive interest in ancestral healing. While doing genealogy research, she discovered an ancient witch trial and generational curse, which occurred in the 1600s, and then a massive coal mine explosion in the 1920s, which killed several members of her family. Knowledge of these events explained an awful lot about strange patterns and illnesses in her life and those of her family.
The Maxwell Curse will tell how ancestral legacies can ripple across time for centuries, leaving havoc in their wake. Lisa feels that it's her life's work to heal that curse by working with her ancestors, and sharing with others how they too can break the ties that bind them to their own families' past histories via the Ancestral Healing Summit.
Click here to visit Lisa’s website.