I’ve been doing some grieving over the death of Norman Ellis, my high school mentor, and while on the scale of grieving this is a personal loss leading of a lot of reflection on life of Norman and the impact he had on me, I’m well aware of the trauma that can accompany the death of a family member or close friend or colleague. My friend Robin Dyke sent me this piece from Catherine Woodiwiss, a web editor based in Washington DC, who has experienced the death of a sister from an accident in Afghanistan, and the slow recovery of another sister who was hit by a car.
Catherine wrote a moving article in January about trauma, grieving and healing. We can all benefit from her wisdom. I have abridged her commentary, but you can read her full article here on the Sojourners blog.
- Trauma permanently changes us.
This is the big, scary truth about trauma: there is no such thing as “getting over it.” The five stages of grief model marks universal stages in learning to accept loss, but the reality is in fact much bigger: a major life disruption leaves a new normal in its wake. There is no “back to the old me.” You are different now, full stop. Wear your new life — warts, wisdom and all — with courage.
- Presence is always better than distance.
There is a curious illusion that in times of crisis, people “need space.” In my experience it is almost always false. Trauma is a disfiguring, lonely time even when surrounded in love; to suffer through trauma alone is unbearable. Do not assume others are reaching out, showing up or covering all the bases. Err on the side of presence.
- Healing is seasonal, not linear.
In the recovery wilderness, emotional healing looks less like a line and more like a wobbly figure-8. It’s perfectly common to get stuck in one stage for months, only to jump to another end entirely…only to find yourself back in the same old mud again next year. Recovery lasts a long, long time. Expect seasons.
- Surviving trauma takes “firefighters” and “builders.” Very few people are both.
Surviving trauma requires at least two types of people: the crisis team — those friends who can drop everything and jump into the fray by your side; and the reconstruction crew — those whose calm, steady care will help nudge you out the door into regaining your footing in the world. It is rare for any individual to be both a firefighter and a builder. This is one reason why trauma is a lonely experience. Even if you share suffering with others, no one else will be able to fully walk the road with you the whole way.
- Grieving is social, and so is healing.
For as private a pain as trauma is, for all the healing that time and self-work will bring, we are wired for contact. Just as relationships can hurt us most deeply, it is only through relationship that we can be most fully healed. Seeking out shelter in one another requires tremendous courage, but it is a matter of life or paralysis.
- Do not offer platitudes or comparisons. Do not, do not, do not.
“I’m so sorry you lost your son, we lost our dog last year…” “At least it’s not as bad as…” “You’ll be stronger when this is over.” Trauma is terrible. What we need in the aftermath is a friend who can swallow her own discomfort and fear, sit beside us and just let it be terrible for a while.
- Allow those suffering to tell their own stories.
Give the person struggling through trauma the dignity of discovering and owning for himself where, and if, hope endures.
- Love shows up in unexpected ways. This is a mystifying pattern after trauma, particularly for those in broad community: some near-strangers reach out, some close friends fumble to express care. It may not look like what you’d request or expect, but there will be days when surprise love will be the sweetest.
- Whatever doesn’t kill you…
There will be days when you feel like a quivering, cowardly shell of yourself, when despair yawns as a terrible chasm, when fear paralyzes any chance for pleasure. This is just a fight that has to be won, over and over and over again.
- …Doesn’t kill you.
Living through trauma may teach you resilience. It may prompt humility. It may even make you stronger. It also may not. In the end, the hope of life after trauma is simply that you have life after trauma. The days, in their weird and varied richness, go on. So will you.