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Mending Broken Hearts: On healing and disrupting the cycles of intergenerational and communal trauma

Briana Michels discusses the importance of exploring healing with a Native lens and draws connections between intergenerational trauma and substance use.

Mending Broken Hearts is a workshop that centers Indigenous wisdom in the curriculum developed to strengthen participants’ capacity to heal from unresolved feelings of loss and grief created by cycles of intergenerational and historical trauma.

The curriculum is based in Native American teachings and consists of usually three days of interactive activities in a group setting. Groups are made up of about eight to twelve people. It is in this intimate environment that the group fosters a safe space for people to share their experiences and struggles, both personal and communal.

Briana Michels
Briana Michels

The workshop is facilitated by American Indian Resource and Resiliency Team (AIRRT) member and Tribal community facilitator, Briana Michels. Briana’s journey to becoming a facilitator for Mending Broken Hearts begins with her own struggles with historical trauma, and her connection to her uncle, Dave. Briana describes her uncle Dave as a spiritual leader in the community, someone who died unexpectedly, and whose loss was deeply felt in the community. While working through her personal challenges, Briana learned more about intergenerational trauma and the connection between historical trauma and substance use. Motivated by her experience, Briana went on to complete the training and become certified in Mending Broken Hearts. Of that experience, she shares “I got trained and had powerful moments of healing, moments of clarity and understanding. There was also a lot of stuff that I needed to do personally in order to be able to do this in the community, I couldn't just take that training after being certified and bring it to the community. We need to understand the [trauma] within ourselves in order to truly hold space for others. And I guess that's the tough and the beautiful part about it.”

Two important and intertwined aspects of Mending Broken Hearts and facilitating healing are acknowledging historical and intergenerational trauma and conceptualizing healing as a collective action.

Acknowledging historical trauma is a heavy and complex task. Michels illustrates this by providing an example, “For many families, there have been multiple generations that have been forced to be in boarding school. When we understand the impact of boarding school, then we kind of understand the intergenerational trauma that happens in those cycles that continue. We start to understand the correlation between historical trauma and addictions, and how we cope and some of those masks that we wear in order to hide grief and loss that's so powerful. I also think that if we talk about forgiveness that's important too, a lot of us don't even know and understand what forgiveness means to us.

Perhaps the most important and innovative aspect of a workshop like Mending Broken Hearts is highlighting the connection between historical and collective trauma and addiction. “I believe that addiction is just a symptom of historical trauma. Until we get to the root cause of our pain, we won't ever figure out the opioid crisis, we will never figure out alcoholism...we have to get to the root cause of this. When we start to heal, we heal the generations before us and we heal the generations [to come],” said Michels.

At the core of Mending Broken Hearts is the idea of healing as a collective experience. Participants are encouraged to think of their own emotions and challenges in the context that comprises past generations, future family, and the community at large. When describing the need for a safe, communal space, Briana recalls an episode of a podcast she participated in with fellow AIRRT team member, Susan Beaulieu. During the episode, they had an opportunity to discuss the importance of holding space with Dr. Joe Tafur, a medical physician and curandero who studies the role of spiritual healing in modern health care.

“I think about all the places that are designed to be a safe place for us to heal but aren't. I think about a doctor's office, I think about churches. You know those places that are designed to be a healing place for people, but often [people] come up against judgment or bias that it doesn't allow people to feel safe enough to be able to share what they need to share in order to heal. I think we really have to be mindful of those spaces and how we carry ourselves and the energy that we bring into a space because we don't have enough vulnerable safe places out there for people to heal and that's what I believe that I do.”

Michels goes on to contemplate some of the challenges of facilitating Mending Broken Hearts in the community and speaks to the history of erasure endured within Native communities.

“We have to start from ground zero, for Indigenous people, for a lot of us, we have to start from ground zero because our ceremonies that gave us so much healing were taken away and they weren't legal until 1978- 1979, and everything that provided healing to us, was all taken away from us and we have to understand, we have to figure out ‘what does healing look like,’ for us, and also honor our emotions.”

When thinking about the impact of a workshop like Mending Broken Hearts, Briana describes it as planting seeds: “One day, you kind of hope it grows, and then at that point, you can say that you taught someone something.” Ultimately, Briana describes herself as a facilitator and while she can invite participants to hold space, the healing happens at different moments for people, and in different ways. Briana recalls when a participant reached out to her to let her know that after completing the workshop she received an unexpected apology, one she had been waiting on and hoping for over three decades. Another example involves another participant, who reached out to Briana to share a moment of healing that happened in the most unexpected way

“[One participant] said she was driving and she thought she saw an eagle on the side of the road, and she thought she saw something dropped. As she was driving by, she felt her mom in her vehicle. Her mom had passed and [she felt] her mom told her to turn around and go back to that spot. Sure enough, as she did that there was the eagle feather waiting for her. And you know, eagle feathers are very spiritual, they're very sacred to us and when she got that, she saw that it was just like, you know, mind kind of blown.”

While these moments might be difficult to capture or even fully articulate, they contribute to Briana’s hopes to see the programming of Mending Broken Hearts continue to grow and expand. In closing, Briana leaves us with a few questions: what would it look like for not only more community members to have this training, but also for our leadership and institutions? What could healing look like then?

For more information on Mending Broken Hearts, the American Indian Resource and Resiliency Team, or the opioid work more broadly, visit opioid.umn.edu.

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