The Far Side of Trauma: Finding Peace After Loss
Loss is an immense landscape for those living with psychological trauma and its consequent posttraumatic stress. Not always clear and obvious to us, because we can be good at avoiding painful facts, the pain of the stress itself further distracts us from what we will, in healing if not before, come to know: something was taken from us, and it won't be regained easily, if at all.
Loss is intensely personal
For some, it is the sense of being safe in particular areas of their live - when out for a walk, or driving to pick up the kids from school, or in the arms of a lover. For others, the roots of loss drives down to bedrock: the world itself is devoid of safety, people are either cold vessels of apathy or wolves on two legs. Safety, if it is to be found at all, is for many people found in isolation only.
The season of loss is now upon us. Frost has killed everything in my garden. The lovely trees are all around me going dormant and letting fall their leaves, leaving me alone to face the winter. Winds are freshening and blustering, and indifferently assault me when I go out for my morning run. Everywhere I see death. In this I am not alone.
In winter we generally come indoors and huddle a bit. I like that, but it isn't good for our public statistics. Pathogens will naturally take advantage of our clustering, and pick off the young and the old and the weak, as if they were Yellowstone wolves gleaning an elk herd. "Death comes to us all, m'Lord", his servant says to Thomas Moore, in the play A Man for all Seasons. It comes now to us, everywhere we look.
I learned this week that death had touched a sensitive soul who I know just a little. She accompanied a loved pet to death's door, and on past the threshold, and now she sees dying and loss in many places in her world. She is open to the fact, and it will be a visitor in the house of her mind for an unknown time.
When death, which in fact is always with us, reaches out and touches us, we will for a time see more than we want to. A friend moves away, a sibling ceases to respond to contacts, a loved pet finally breaths its last. Something dark and desperate is triggered in us, and we are in a too-familiar land where there is no welcome and scant refuge. We seem to return to this place again and again.
Loss has a message, especially for the traumatized
These events are opportunities to plumb our emotional depths. For what do we weep? For the loss of a chance for a happy childhood, which was hardly possible in a home where one parent was in a psychological stupor and other lost in thinking about their own issues? For the loss of real contact with siblings who might have been companions but for the fact that real human contact never occurred between them? For loss of a career that could and should have been, but for the fact that the focus needed for complex tasks was always just out of grasp, given the perpetual brain noise that everywhere was with us? For the loss of a chance for real intimacy with a life partner, something simply not seen and modeled in the home of our birth, the music began we simply didn't know the dance?
There are so many losses in life, for those without the challenge of psychological trauma. For those with this challenge, the problem is a whole order of magnitude more difficult. What can we do, in the face of all this? Quite a lot, actually. Begin with seeing the personal value that preceded your loss - this is its secret message to you.
What the distress of loss tells you
Our first act must be to get an improved understanding about what's happening in our brain. We don't react to everything around us - only to some things, which we must first recognize, and then care about. We don't mourn the loss of things about which we do not care, so positive feelings about something must exist first. We loved our dog, who died last week. We delighted in the prospect of attention from a parent who only showed up in our lives a few times a year. We were excited about going to college, right before we got pregnant and the whole idea collapsed.
As a therapist and perpetual student of humanity, I have learned that our brain is built to be especially attentive to certain situations, and loss of what is emotionally meaningful is absolutely one of them. The distress this causes (which ascends to grief when it becomes large), is absolutely unavoidable. I know from profound personal experience.
Loss is the price of caring. Loss makes very clear what matters to you, if you but look. This message is worth examining carefully, because at the core of your loss is something you care about very much. You REALLY need to see what it is, and that it matters to you.
The transformation that comes from opening to your loss
Why do this? Because it is rare indeed that you only have one chance. True, today's flower will not come again tomorrow, but tomorrow's surely will. When it does, perhaps you can greet it with an awareness of its preciousness that has been honed by the rough grit of your grief, and it will then bloom for you as no flower ever has before. This will only happen, however, if you attend to your loss and its consequent grief today, knowing that it is necessary and unavoidable.
But, you say, what about the flower that never comes again? Oh, I do know this flower. The girl I loved and lost in high school will never come again, but upon looking at it I see that it was the loving I liked most, and the possibility of that I have not lost. Or perhaps you are now too old for children, and for you they will not happen. Could you possibly open your heart to the child down the block who always plays alone, because her mother is depressed? Life rarely gives us breakfast in bed. It often gives us a sack of groceries instead, or perhaps the address of a food store. Adaptation to new situations requires growth, and growth is an affirmation of our existence - welcome it!
The peace on the other side of loss
If I attend without reservation to my experience of loss, it will pass. Deny and avoid psychic pain it will be mine forever. All winds come to rest, after the storm, and once still reveal a simple peace: you are still here and life is all around you. The universe is at your door, with it plenitude of small and large mysteries, your for the taking.
Getting to this place may happen without help, or it may require considerable help. If you don't like how you feel, do something. If that fails, try something else. If you are out of ideas or faith in yourself, get help.
While you are working your way through the losses, never forget that we are fundamentally social animals. We NEED each other, and we must respect this and retain our connections like the lifelines they are. These links to others won't magically remove our losses, but they will help us walk with and through our grief. The sun will rise again, and the flowers return. It well may not be today, but it does happen and in that you can indeed have faith. When your own faith falters, borrow a little from those close to you - they won't mind.
The unavoidable pain of loss, and of grief, need not last long. Trauma-focused psychotherapy can resolve it very quickly, as I have seen many times with my clients. The sooner you come to the place of peace and new clarity about what you deeply care about the sooner you will be ready again to embrace your life, today, right here. Why wait?
I would like to hear about the struggles you have had with trauma-associated loss, and what you have done with it and how it has turned out. We can all learn so much from each other by telling our stories. What's yours? Tell us in the comment section.
Cloyd, T. (2013, October 9). The Far Side of Trauma: Finding Peace After Loss, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, March 28 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2013/10/the-far-side-of-trauma-inding-peace-after-loss
Author: Tom Cloyd, MS, MA
Hi, I wonder if you can help me. I found out 5 months ago that my partner has cheated on me. We were together a year at the time. we tried to work things through for a further 4 months until he gave up and left me. Ive turned quite paranoid and crazy and have been getting worse since i found out he was unfaithful. I was very happen and trusted him more than anyone in the world. Im 19, so young, and at uni. Its been 2 months since we've been separated, and I'm still so broken. I have had increasing amounts of nightmares since i found out but lately i can't sleep or avoid sleeping as my nightmares are graphic, and traumatic and people keep dying and i can't save them. I feel lost and broken in every way, I'm trying i really am but since I'm home for the summer i haven't been able to talk to the uni's mental health advisor.. I wonder if you have any advice for me? I haven't had an easy time at uni, but this has knocked me more than anything, I'm obsessed, and broken, and can't stop thinking about all the thing i don't know about what he may of done. We tried to leave everything on a good note, as we see each other every day on my course. We need to be nice, and i feel thats also the only way i can still enjoy him, but i can't stop bringing it up. I don't want to hate because i hated the girl i was cheated on with so so long it consumed me. everyone keeps saying time will help, but everyones also moved on and no longer wants to support me. help..
@Maddy -- I'm so sorry to hear of your unhappiness. Universities all offer mental free health counseling services. I'd suggest finding an on-campus counselor with whom you can discuss your experience and learn processes to resolve it.
I have so many losses with what I went through. My biggest is I have no idea how to connect with others. No sense of needing someone. All I do is exist. I go to therapy, but it is and has been rough and so slow for me. My therapist is very understanding, but there is so much to wade through. Alot of times I want to quit. Feelings that Im not worth the hassle overwhelm me.I would like to learn more. How to deal with my losses instead of trying to avoid that they happened.
Teri – thanks for your response, and sorry for only now seeing it. I’m supposed to be notified when someone comments, but it hasn’t been happening. You weren’t being ignored – I just didn’t know about your comment.
I don't know enough about your situation to say anything specific. But this is almost always a good rule to follow: losses get dealt with AFTER trauma memory is dealt with - and that means transformed so that it no longer triggers. I'm very insistent about this. If you do it the other way around, it usually doesn't work.
And let me say this about therapists: their being likable is nice, but it's not the core issue. What they really need to be is competent. Same as for your electrician, mechanic, family physician, or cardiologist. They need to know how to get the job done, and then just do that. You need not like them at all. The main value of likability is that it makes it easier to trust someone. But don't lose sight of what you're really paying for, which is not a friend or a listening ear but someone who can change how your life works.
Knowing how to connect with others is a skill you can learn. But you'd better deal with trauma and loss first, OK?
People are complicated. So is trauma and loss...and psychotherapy. The more you learn then better you will be at being a smart consumer of psychotherapy services, so by all means read all you can, and talk to people as well. Your learning will build up, and gradually you be more and more able to make sense of things and to get your problems dealt with effectively.
Those who work hard, and persist, usually get results. I hope YOU get results. I'm sure you deserve to, and you should work from that belief.
I hope for good things for you!
Thanks for a good article with more than just trite platitudes. It's always comforting when the depth of loss is acknowledged by someone else before being told what to do to accept and "get past it."
I was sexually abused by my father from the time I had memory until I was 15. Aside from all the mental and emotional trauma, the loss of my childhood and innocence has always been a continual black hole in my soul. My mother died of cancer when I was still in college just as we began mending our relationship. My big brother was the one person in my life I trusted, loved and connected with the most. He developed schizoaffective disorder. Watching his mental decline was traumatic and devastating. Losing him to suicide 5yrs after my mother's death was the worst blow of my life. I still struggle with these losses every single day of my life. I've struggled with depression most of my life. This added obstacle sometimes seems insurmountable. Aside from all the mental and emotional baggage I carry, depression feels like quicksand and a thick fog my body can barely push through. Anti-depressant medication helps me have a fighting chance. I've been blessed with a therapist I immediately connected with over a decade ago. Her understanding and acceptance helped me look at my losses and embrace them as you suggested. This is the only way to integrate and even begin trying to truly live again.
She helped me do as you suggested, look at why I'm grieving...what am I missing and what have I lost? By looking closely at this (and being ALLOWED/encouraged to feel it), I was able to learn how to feel compassion for myself instead of only guilt and shame. Feeling my anger showed me that I cared and loved the child I was but was never allowed to be. The grief over losing my brother gutted me and ripped out my soul. It took many years to even feel that level of loss and pain because I was locked in rage and denial. The sadness and emptiness the loss of my entire family has left in my life still is a struggle for me but I try to look for ways to honor my brother and all he did for me by living and giving to others as he did.
I volunteered for a suicide hotline and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention for years. Now I feel ready to move on and instead of obsessing over the way he died, I feel the love and connection we had before he got sick. I seem to need more time alone than most people to process, recharge and recoup energy. I try not to beat myself up about this too much and allow myself the space to nurture myself. However, I've challenged myself to stay open to others and keep the courage to truly connect on an honest and authentic level.
My sibling bond can never be duplicated but I've been so blessed to meet a man and life partner who knows my true self and cares for me in the same selfless manner my brother did. I never thought I could ever share that kind of connection with anyone else but I do. I don't have many friends but the few I do have truly know me. I don't have the psychic energy to "pretend" or be fake. I used all that up as a child hiding the worst horrors imaginable.
I exercise as much as I can. Depression and tiredness sometimes wins out over it but when I do exercise, it provides surges of energy and passion that given the chance depression would devour completely. Dance got me through my childhood and teen-aged years. We were too poor and my parents too absent for me to ever have even one dance class. But I would teach myself and freestyle dance in my basement for hours to escape. I never felt so free as when I danced. I took my first dance class as an adult in my 20's. I try to treat myself to all the things I missed out on in my childhood and young adult life. It's difficult to stay open to life but the moments when I really do feel alive...when I'm truly laughing with abandon...driving in my car on a sunny afternoon...petting a dog...these moments I feel happy to be alive even though I've suffered through many traumatic losses.
Kyra – thanks for your response, and sorry for only now seeing it. I’m supposed to be notified when someone comments, but it hasn’t been happening. You weren’t being ignored – I just didn’t know about your comment.
You provide me with a lot of information, and that's helpful Your situation is complex, for a single reason: your family wasn't safe for you. People with your early life history frequently find that all else in their life is darkened by that early trauma, and until it's resolved many things just won't ever be right. Depression is virtually always a major problem for these people.
What can you do? I don't want to critique your current therapist, and I truly don't know enough to do that, at all. But I will say that you must resolve not just the losses involved in your early family experiences but most primarily the sheer fearfulness of it. It wasn't safe for you to be in your home. People who should have protected you did not. This typically results in some seriously disruptive memories and distorting ways of thinking. All this can usually be productively addressed by a competent therapist who specializes in psychological trauma. Once you do that, most any therapist can finish what remains to be finished.
That's my central recommendation for you. Prioritize not the grief but the fear associated with your childhood. This will be life changing for you, I'll predict.
I hope for the very best for you. Don't give up!
And congratulations on being able to have an intimate relationship with someone you love. That is a very good indicator, to me, that you can resolve these awful issues you have written about.
I have lost 8 people in my life since 2008. I am at such a loss over this. The last was my brother taking his own life 5 weeks ago, from a deep depression. I am working through this as best I can. It just seems that there has been so much death. And now this last one, is overwhelming. I am taking Grief classes and trying to focus on my child and grandchildren, and the rest of my family that is left. I am lucky to have them, they have been a rock for me.
Holly – thanks for your response, and sorry for only now seeing it. I’m supposed to be notified when someone comments, but it hasn’t been happening. You weren’t being ignored – I just didn’t know about your comment.
I'm so sorry to hear of you losses. That's a large burden to carry forward through your days. I don't think your class is going to be sufficient, although it's likely helpful and informative, and you should probably stay with it. Serious grief such as yours justifies some time with a therapist. I've worked with a lot of grief, and I can tell you that if it's treated like trauma, it resolves remarkable well and rather easily. This may surprise you, but it's true. Find a person who specializes in working with trauma - you'll be glad you did. We who do this work always work also with grief, because where there's trauma there's grief.
I've seen (and helped) people get through some really awful losses - and some of them have been suffering for years. It absolutely can be done. You just need to find someone who knows what they're doing. I would estimate that if you don't have other issues (like loss and trauma in childhood), you could successfully work past what you've told me about in only a very few months.
I wish you all the best in your journey.
I would like to know more. I'm about ready to give up on therapy. I have struggled for years with PTSD and I have a very caring and understanding therapist, but I'm in a dark place. I can't find peace at all for my losses. Everyday is a struggle to hang on. I get so low that it seems each time at therapy I am fighting to find my safe place. I never really feel safe. I would like to hear from you to tell you more of my story.
Teresa - thanks for your response, and sorry for only now seeing it. I'm supposed to be notified when someone comments, but it hasn't been happening. You weren't being ignored - I just didn't know about your comment.
It sounds to me like you may not have a therapist who is trained to TREAT trauma. Talk therapy just won't do it. NO ONE should struggle for years with PTSD. No one. That's just not necessary or justifiable.
So, that's you first issue.
Your second is losses. Doing trauma processing can be a huge help. After that, what you must to is work deliberately to construct a good life. You build this like you build a house - piece by piece. It's your life - make it like you want it. I can't tell you how to do that in this space. But I will suggest this: there are some excellent books and articles coming out now about happiness. Really good stuff. Here's one: Hanson, R. (2013). Hardwiring happiness: the new brain science of contentment, calm, and confidence. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0385347316/ref=wms_ohs_product?ie=UTF8&psc=1
I will be writing a review of this book soon. Notice about it will be posted to all the usual social media outlets.
But...deal with the trauma first.
I am in therapy trying to deal with the abuse and trauma that I suffered while growing up. I'm addressing things I have unconsciously been trying to suppress, deny, bury, etc. for my entire life (I'm 43). I want a quick fix (but I do know that doesn't happen). I want someone or something to make the pain all just go away (but I also know that doesn't happen). I noticed you mentioned 'quick' trauma therapy. How quick? it seems to me that I will be in this for the long haul due to my personal issues. I'm not trying to pick a fight or tell anyone they are wrong but it seems to me that each person's circumstances are entirely personal and so is the length of time and method(s) used along the healing journey. Thank you.
Amy - thanks for your response, and sorry for only now seeing it. I'm supposed to be notified when someone comments, but it hasn't been happening. You weren't being ignored - I just didn't know about your comment.
About "quick" trauma therapy: if all depends upon how many traumatic events occurred, the spacing, and how old you were. The more events, and the younger the victim, the long therapy will take. A single event, happening to an adult, can be handled in a couple of sessions, IF the person is ready to do the work. If there are multiple events - spread out over years, during childhood, it may take a couple of years. This assumes you're actually dealing with someone TRAINED to deal with trauma.
I hope this helps your in your thinking.