Grief is Unavoidable, Trauma is Unacceptable
Grief and trauma are not discerning — anyone is fair game. If you are grieving, then most likely there is trauma too. The two should not be conflated: grief is unavoidable and part of living but trauma is not. It should be fleshed out and dealt with therapeutically so you can grieve without added pain and disruption. Grief is often not hard to miss, bouts of crying, depression and anger. It’s incredibly complex and personal. Trauma is more insidious — you may be living with it right now and completely unaware. It stays dormant and then wakes when triggered or haunts you constantly. It can make people anxious, depressed and panicky. Too often people accept or ignore trauma. That needs to stop.
I am not an expert on grief or trauma, but I live with both. Just over a year ago my five-year-old daughter, Suzie, died in her sleep from a seizure. She had a very rare and fatal genetic disease of which seizures were a symptom. Her father and I chose to have her undergo an experimental stem cell transplant in 2016 but she began to deteriorate, and we lost her. Words do not do our suffering justice. I will not recount the day she died — it doesn’t take much effort to imagine how horrific it was. We were numb and in disbelief the first few days and weeks. Making cremation arrangements and planning her memorial were at times almost surreal. After family and friends had to return to their lives, grief began to set in.
We faced our grief, understanding that it wasn’t a process we could speed through — and we’re still very much in it. About a month after Suzie was gone, we started to attend a bimonthly group for the those grieving a loss. It did not go well. We passed Kleenex to widows and widowers who were horrified by our story (once a newly widowed woman left the meeting room because she was so upset). It wasn’t the right group, our story seemed to make our fellow group members hesitant to share. We didn’t come to win at grieving. After three sessions we stopped going.
We both took time off at work and sought out individual therapy. I talked openly about Suzie, with anyone who would listen. I shared my pain and struggles. I continued taking my antidepressant. My therapist helped me understand that grief is not linear, it shifts and changes. I didn’t try to power through, life had brought me to my knees, so I stayed down there and sought help. But then the trauma began to pop up. I would have flashbacks that took my breath away and would make me shake and sweat. I’d be running on a treadmill, driving to pick my son up from daycare or washing dishes and completely lose it. I thought I was done for. That I’d never be able to rejoin the world. Thankfully my therapist knew better — she was a practitioner of Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART) and it could help me overcome my trauma.
ART is not quack science; it is an evidence-based treatment that is deeply rooted in psychotherapy. It’s used to treat trauma, depression, anxiety and a host of other conditions. In my experience, I sit across from my therapist and think about a traumatic moment (you don’t need to talk it through), and my eyes follow her hand movements, this technique is called voluntary memory/image replacement. A session lasts 1-hour and it may take several sittings but ultimately, I am the director and write a new scene to replace the traumatic one. I do not walk away brain washed or delusional. Reality is still real — my daughter is gone. But the horrific images are replaced with ones I chose. I don’t freeze with fear anymore. I can drive past her old school without my heart racing. Most importantly, I am free to just grieve.
You must move with your grief. Cry when you need to. Get angry and break something. Laugh. Whatever the moment calls for. Sit with it, notice it and learn from it. But do not accept trauma as a condition that must be endured. It absolutely is not. The root of your trauma is of no consequence. There is no trauma too small — if it’s paralyzing you in any capacity then get help. Even if you have no obvious signs but suspect something traumatic is lurking in your past, still seek help. It doesn’t have to be ART but try to find an evidence-based treatment and a licensed practitioner. It’s not OK to live with trauma, especially if you are also grieving, depressed or both. You have enough to endure.