“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
You don’t ever forget that your partner was unfaithful. You don’t ever forget that you lost a precious child. You don’t ever forget the day your whole world fell apart. You don’t ever forget that you’re a victim of abuse.
We may heal to some extent, and build a very different future.
Our partner may change, or we might marry someone else.
We might still have other children.
And our fortunes might reverse.
We might laugh, and find fulfillment, and decide ‘life must go on’.
Even so, we still remember – for we can’t erase those memories.
There will always be an ache for what could, and should, have been.
It is simply a fact that a heartache is a heartache.
And what happened left an imprint, and a sadness, and a scar.
“It has been said: ‘Time heals all wounds.’ I do not agree. The scars remain and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.”
The starting place for healing from a trauma in your life is taking that courageous, and very shaky, step of facing the truth of what happened to you.
That means allowing all the feelings to rise up to the surface, and experiencing the pain all over again.
But what do you do after taking that brave step – because you know, for a fact, that it’s going to feel awful?
1. Give yourself time – take all the time you need – to deal with what comes up, and to mourn a million losses.
2. Allow the healing process to follow its own course. You can’t force the pace, or decide what it will look like.
3. Be patient with yourself, and especially during dark days. You don’t know how you will feel; you don’t know how you’ll react.
4. There are going to be times when you’ll think you’re going backwards, and you’ll feel that it is hopeless, and you’ll battle deep despair. Please know that this is normal. It’s a crucial part of healing.
5. Do not judge yourself. Just be kind to yourself. You are working on your healing. You are doing all it takes. And know that things will change. You won’t feel like this forever.
“Remind yourself of what you’ve been able to overcome. All the times when you thought you weren’t going to make it through, and you proved yourself wrong. You are more powerful than you feel.” – Unknown
Remind yourself of this when you feel anxious, scared, weak, worn-out, worn-down, or overwhelmed.
There are days when we believe that we simply cannot cope. But we take the next step, and then the step after that.
We keep on going, and we do the best we can.
We force ourselves to try.
We don’t give in. We must be strong.
And when we look back at our day: We‘re glad it’s over; it’s been tough.
“The relevant question in psychiatry shouldn’t be what’s wrong with you, but what happened to you.” – Eleanor Longden
In counselling we ask that very question.
People are shaped by their relationships, and by significant life experiences. So rather than just treating the symptoms or effects, or diagnosing someone with an inappropriate label, in counselling we ask questions like:
1. What significant event has just happened in their life? Are they reeling from a devastating trauma? Has their whole world just been turned upside down? Is this the kind of thing that any normal person would find disorienting and too much to handle? Do they have adequate support?
2. Related to this, how many other traumatic events has this individual had to deal with? If previous traumas haven’t been properly processed, then they won’t have the resources and reserves to cope with another devastating life event.
3. Have they suffered a significant loss? Are these normal reactions for someone who is grieving? How many other losses has this loss precipitated? How life-changing is this loss/ or are these losses? Has the person been allowed to grieve properly?
4. What was their early childhood like? What kinds of attachment relationships did they form with their parents, or their main caregivers? Were the attachments secure (safe, unconditional, loving, accepting, healthy, reliable and predictable)? Anxious-ambivalent (where love and acceptance were conditional, and they never knew for sure if the important people in their life would be there for them, or not)? Dismissive Avoidant (where they have to hide their true thoughts and feelings – so they became detached and emotionally distant)? Dismissive Avoidant (where they have buried and still carry unresolved losses and traumas, or mistreatments and abuses associated with their childhood)?
These all leave their mark on the individual’s mind. There is nothing wrong with them. All their reactions are quite normal. They are people who’ve been harmed, and who carry the deep scars of a shocking, painful past that still needs to be addressed.
1. World wide studies of disaster response have confirmed that social support provides the greatest protection against being severely impacted by a trauma.
2. Social support doesn’t simply mean having people around you – even highly responsive and compassionate people.
To feel supported, we need to feel we have truly been seen, heard and understood by somebody who genuinely cares.
We also need to feel completely safe with that person. This is absolutely crucial for healing to occur.
3. Feeling safe is not a cognitive decision. It’s not something we can convince ourselves of, or can talk ourselves into believing. We don’t feel safe because we’re told someone is safe.
Instead, safety is something we experience intuitively, and at a gut level.
We need to feel – deep down inside – that we matter to this person, and the fact that we are suffering truly matters to them, too.
4. Even where we are surrounded by familiar people – people who belong to our community – we won’t be able to benefit from this unless we have first experienced true and genuine support (as described in 2 and 3, above). Instead, we will simply feel detached, disconnected, and alone. We will feel more isolated than we’ve ever felt before.
5. If we don’t experience true and genuine support, the trauma reactions will eventually be too hard to bear. The feelings will be intolerable.
As a consequence of this, people may turn to self harm, alcohol, drugs or sex to numb the pain.
6. This is why it is essential that a trauma survivor finds a safe person who will be there for them. (A therapist, a counsellor, a friend or family member who really “gets” their pain, and who communicates concerns). Only then, can the survivor choose to let down their guard, and slowly start to process the trauma they’ve been through. And only then can they begin to slowly start to heal.
“When (trauma) is ignored or invalidated, the silent screams continue internally. When someone enters the pain and hears the screams, healing can begin.” – Danielle Bernock
“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs.” ― Bessel A. van der Kolk
If you have experienced a trauma of some kind, your brain will now be programmed to expect danger or threat. So, even in the night, it will remain on high alert. It does this on its own, outside of conscious awareness.
1. The brain will start to release a cascade of hormones. This disturbs our sleep, and usually wakens us up, as it prepares to set in motion the fight/ flight/ freeze response. This happens even when the risk or the danger has passed.
2. Trauma disturbs our normal sleep architecture. This means it interferes with the way we move through the different sleep cycles. REM sleep is the stage which is affected most. This is where we integrate and process our experiences.
3. Many trauma sufferers will experience night-terrors. These occur when we are in the REM part of the sleep cycle. Often, night-terrors will vividly replay part of the trauma, or they may contain images, symbols, or feelings related to the trauma.
4. Although this is disturbing, upsetting and distressing, it is believed to be the brain’s attempt at healing from the trauma.
What can we do about disturbed sleep patterns?
1. Firstly, it’s important to have realistic expectations related to sleep, after you’ve experienced a trauma of some kind. Your body and your brain are only trying to protect you. They don’t want you to sleep – because that makes you vulnerable.
2. No-one wants to waken when they’ve just fallen sleep, or struggle with insomnia, or experience night terrors. So show yourself compassion, and be kind to yourself.
3. Try your best to maintain some kind of regular sleep schedule so your brain comes to expect set, certain periods of “down time.” This will help prepare your body, so it’s able to relax.
4. If this doesn’t work, then just allow yourself to sleep whenever you feel tired, or whenever you can nap. Take the pressure off yourself; you cannot force yourself to sleep.
5. Sleep where you feel safe, or are prepared to deal with threat. For some, this might mean sleeping in a different room … or maybe having somebody they trust nearby … or having ready access to a clear means of escape. Whatever it takes, you need to carve out a safe space. You need to feel you’re able to protect yourself.
6. Learn how to de-stress when you are wakened in the night. For example, some people practice deep breathing exercises, some people choose to get up and change rooms, others seek comfort and support in a safe person. It’s important to experiment, and find what works for you.
7. If you keep tossing and turning, then get up and move around. Find something that’s distracting, or that helps you to feel calm. Eventually, you’ll start to feel relaxed and tired again. You can’t speed up this process; you just have to wait it out.
“Even the darkest night will end, and the sun will rise again.”
“The risk of love is loss, and the price of loss is grief.” – Hilary Stanton Zunin
1. The people we love won’t always be around. Life can change in an instant, and permanently. Once it’s over, it’s over, and there’s no going back.
2. Loss shows us that time passes and comes to an end. The things that used to matter don’t matter any more. Grief crystallizes values and what matters most in life.
3. Grief follows its own schedule and trajectory. There isn’t a right way to work through grief. You take it as it comes, and take it one step at a time. It can’t be planned in advance, and it’s unpredictable.
4. Although life moves on around you as though nothing has changed, it’s OK if you focus on, and honour, what you’ve lost. Your grief is real and valid, and you should give it its place. You owe it to yourself to feel and process layers of loss.
5. There are some kinds of losses that will always stay with us. We won’t recover fully, or forget what we once had. There will always be a sadness, and heartache, and a grief.
6. Over time, you slowly learn that joy and pain can co-exist. It doesn’t take away from the pain and loss you feel. But you see it’s possible to still experience happiness.
7. The landscape after loss is unfamiliar and unknown. We’re stumbling in the dark; nothing really feels the same. We feel that we have changed, and we’re strangers to ourselves. Also, there’s nothing that appeals or that draws any more.
8. You feel so isolated – for no-one understands. It’s something you must face, and must live through, on your own.
9. Loss creates anxiety and deep insecurity. Your world’s fallen apart; nothing’s certain any more. You don’t believe in dreams, and you’re too afraid to hope. The future just looks bleak, and is something to be feared.
10. You appreciate the people who’re sensitive and kind. Who understand you’re grieving, and who let you take your time. They don’t have expectations. They never make demands. They let you just be real. They don’t need you to be strong.