Grieving and Growing Through Traumatic Loss
I just completed a counseling session with a mother whose only son was murdered in Los Angeles in 1994. The killer was never apprehended. Jennie (a pseudonym) still has flashbacks, anxiety, poor sleep, and poor health. She has moved to another city to care for her 93-year-old father. She’ll stay with him as long as he needs her, she says, but she can’t seem to get back to herself. She ruminates about her son’s last days in the hospital and the gunshots she heard outside the house that night. She cycles, again and again and again, through feeling nervous, agitated, and devastated.
After 35 years as a trauma psychologist, I am still shocked and saddened by the numbers of parents who are forced to bury children as a result of violence. What tends to be most helpful to these people is hearing from other parents about their struggles with grief, so I consistently recommend the Grief ToolBox to them. It’s a wonderful resource.
I’d like to share what I’ve learned about the stages and phases of grief from Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross herself, and from my reading, teaching and treating survivors of brutality and traumatic loss. What you’ll all recognize is how many aspects of grief correspond to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
First, “The 3 D’s” allude to the first stage of traumatic grief. This stands for Disbelief, Denial, Dissociation, the self-protective ways we shut-down, tune-out, and go numb to the shock of what has just happened. The second reaction, Outrage and Anger, is often repressed. In other times and other cultures there were rituals- people would wail, tear their clothes, or cut themselves to try to dispel the pain. (Many animals howl in response to the loss of a partner.) In our culture, more men than women go directly to outrage and can get lost and stopped in this stage of deep grief.
Obsession and rumination come next. These are the cognitive strategies we use to try to create understanding and a sense of mastery over the loss: All the repetitive questions that come up, like “How could this have happened?” “Why?” and the multiple, “If only’s” we review, as though if we could just find the right answers our world could be restored to normal again. When these questions and thoughts wheel around non-stop in our minds, we can feel as though we’re going crazy. (Recall the story of Job in the Old Testament. He did go crazy -- with paranoia.)
Some people, especially women, go straight to Depression, Despair and Anguish after the crushing loss of a child. And this stage can feel like forever.
During this “long dark night of the soul,” grief can take a serious toll on the immune system so that illness sets in. Jennie told me she has so many aches and pains in her body (not to mention the fatigue from inadequate sleep), that she can no longer take the daily walks she used to take with ease. She also told me she couldn’t leave her father for any length of time, and I wondered if that might be the lingering guilt she feels about her son’s death. Guilt has no rational boundaries. It simply prevents us from turning the focus to self-care and recovery.
Finally, what is Acceptance, and how do we get there? We know what it isn’t – it is not resignation. I also don’t think it’s learning to live with the pain. Learning to accept this new world the way it is now is about recognizing that it can never be the same, and recognizing that you will never be the same- because part of you died along with the one you love. So the real question is how can you regenerate new life? This is about resurrection and renewal. How do you mirror the caterpillar and go from “mush” inside the cocoon to a new you? (In this regard, I would suggest that the beautiful wings you acquire along the way are your wisdom.)
As Jennie and I talked about her spiritual beliefs, she acknowledged her Catholicism and her belief that her son was in heaven, but without conviction in her words. I looked her in the eyes and said, “Do you truly believe that your son is an angel in heaven?” She startled and said “Yes,” as though it was the first thing she’d heard me say in our entire session.
“If you truly believe that,” I said firmly, “it’s time you heard from him. Please write him a letter and express all the love and describe all the gifts he brought into your life, knowing that he is serving others now in ways that we cannot know. Why people leave us when they do and what their work is on the other side is a mystery. So write this letter of love and appreciation to him, and then, write a letter back to yourself from him.”
“I could do that?” she asked incredulously.
“Of course,” I answered. “Simply start the letter and let the words come. People interact with angels, God and Jesus every day. Keep your faith,” I urged.
Jennie lunged across the small table and threw her arms around me, nearly throwing me off my chair. “Thank you so much,” she said with a bright light in her eyes. She had what she came for: A pathway that would help her, in her own personal way, to release her son and move forward into a new life, while still holding and cherishing the gifts her son gave her. She was ready to get back to the work of completing her grief and making new meaning for her life.
I wouldn’t have given that homework to everyone, of course, but I sensed it was right for Jennie. She needed to believe that her son was still “alive” and had an important purpose. Believing that would ultimately help her to forgive herself (It may not make logical sense, but every parent of a murdered child who has ever visited my office confronts severe guilt that he or she couldn’t somehow protect the child from death). Only then could she embrace the two things that are required for Acceptance: Self-Forgiveness and Self-Compassion. In that way, she will finally be able to honor and nurture the thing her son would surely want for her now: A happy, healthy life.