by Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW
A pattern that upsets people working through trauma is the grieving that must be done for the safety and security that the survivor finally gets to create during their recovery, but did not get to live while enduring trauma. My clients report that they never felt so unstable UNTIL their lives became safe. What’s going on?
When we are experiencing trauma it is like floating in the center of a giant lake during an electric storm: we have to just keep swimming to shore. It uses valuable energy to ask “why me?” during an emergency. Instead, energy must be spent judiciously on survival.
Once we are physically and emotionally safe we have the capacity–and indeed the imperative–to start making sense of our experiences.
This requires a reckoning with and an overcoming of the many defense/coping mechanisms of minimization (“oh it wasn’t so bad”) victim-blaming (“it was my fault”) and numbing out with television/food/shopping/sex/alcohol/drugs/etc…because before we can even get to our grief, we have to be emotionally sober enough to feel the magnitude of our pain, rage, disappointment and fear.
If you are recovering from trauma, know that grief work is normal and cyclical, meaning that we have to do it repeatedly, like laundry. People worry about getting stuck in their grief and while that can occasionally happen (mostly for people with untreated chronic depression) it is far more common to attempt to bypass grief and instead become emotionally rigid and restricted.
Here are my top three Rules of Grieving:
1. Grief requires slowing down. We cannot feel our emotions when we are careening from one task to another like atoms in a Hadron collider.
2. Greif is not a free pass. It does not permit us to shirk our responsibility to contribute to society at large or treat other people poorly. Unless we live alone and are entirely self sufficient (and even then: how did we get there? Did we drive? On roads?) we exist within a social contract and to draw upon the interest, we
must pay into the principle. This means that even if due to mental health issues we cannot work, we can volunteer, or pick up trash when we are out for a walk, or make cookies for a new family in the neighborhood.
3. Greif is not the same as negative self-talk. Grief is a heavy feeling of sadness that we experience physically in our chest area (aka heart). Negative self talk is victim-blaming by another name. And it’s mental health public enemy number one. How we show up for ourselves directly influences how we show up for others. If we want to be a good person: a good parent, good husband or wife, good friend, and good citizen, we must learn and practice internal kindness.