I was fortunate to hear clinical psychologist, Dr Rob Gordon speak recently. Dr Gordon has many years experience working with communities, individuals and families affected by natural disasters and is an authority on trauma. What follows draws on his unique insight, knowledge and understanding.
The word trauma derives from the Greek meaning ‘wound.’ A traumatic event has the potential to inflict psychological injury on those involved or those exposed to it after the fact. The hurt can be mental, physical or social.
Dr Gordon says,
“The impact of trauma disrupts established circumstances of life, violating tacit assumptions and expectations of daily existence.”
In other words, “Trauma… destroys a constancy we didn’t know we had.”
Many of us take for granted the constancy and stability of normal life. We don’t always realise how much our lives are supported by routines and familiarity. They provide a structure that promotes spontaneity and enjoyment. Our psychological health is underpinned by this sense of reality, security, familiarity and predictability.
The suicide of a friend or family member is a significant trauma. It is an event of such intensity as to wound a person’s sense of themselves, their value and worth, their world view and their sense of safety in the world.
Some months after Adam’s death I wrote these words:
When a loved one chooses to end their life the experience for those left behind is akin to a violent earthquake. There may have been warning signs or it may have been sudden and unexpected. The end result is a life traumatised and thrown into turmoil, a life turned upside down.
Our attachments, routines and assumptions, the things that provide stability, security and comfort are compromised. There is no certainty. We feel helpless, vulnerable, anxious, and confused.
What are ‘attachments, routines and assumptions?’
Attachments are those things we have a connection with, the people who are important to us, the society we engage with.
Routines are the way we order our lives, the disciplines we accept, the patterns of behaviour we adopt.
Assumptions are how we view our world, what we understand to be acceptable or normal.
A trauma like suicide causes disruption in every area of life. Our attachments, routines and assumptions are thrown into disarray.
Trauma causes contraction into self.
Following a traumatic event, the emotional distress experienced can make it difficult to relate to other people. This might mean that a person withdraws from family and friends, stops attending social activities, becomes overprotective, or has difficulty expressing or managing emotions.
Part of the recovery process for people who have ‘debonded’ is to overcome their social isolation. They need encouragement to reconnect, to reach out to people who are supportive and committed to their welfare. They need to value the people who affirm them and help the process of rediscovering who they are.
Trauma resets our agenda.
Normal routines are often discarded after a traumatic event. Some people find it difficult to function on any level. They would be content to do nothing. But inactivity is problematic on several levels. It allows for an obsessive reliving of the tragic event. Repetitious thinking can overwhelm the nervous system and make it harder to think clearly. Prolonged inactivity also reduces the motivation to exercise leading to a corresponding loss of energy.
There is value in re-establishing a normal routine. Not only does it help minimise stress, it provides comfort. Familiarity is always reassuring. Returning to work after a traumatic event can be difficult, but it helps you feel your life is getting back on track. Regular times for eating, sleeping, and exercise not only provide structure for your day, they energise and lighten your mood.
Trauma challenges our beliefs.
Trauma is non-discriminatory. Its reach extends to people of every persuasion, to those who acknowledge God and those who don’t, to those who live honourably and those who are self-indulgent and self-absorbed. Trauma challenges our preconceptions. It unsettles those who feel privileged; it threatens those who feel safe. Trauma is often unexpected and uninvited. It arrives on our doorstep and we have nothing to say in our defence.
Adam’s death tested my faith. I expressed my thoughts in this way.
It is said, “Personal tragedy has the potential to dismantle your faith or to strengthen it.” When we first heard of Adam’s death our lives were instantly altered but what of our faith? Can faith survive an experience that wounds deeply, that shatters your dreams? We are changed people, scarred by the fires of adversity, searching for meaning.
What else can we do to aid our personal recovery?
Dr Gordon says,
“What is present as image or memory of a perception, action, or feeling remains exactly what it was until converted into a linguistic representation and verbally expressed.”
What this suggests is that our thoughts and feelings remain fragmented and their meaning incoherent until we write it down. We need a concrete narrative that provides perspective on the situation. Writing about traumatic experiences is difficult as the memories and events are painful. Translating images and feelings into words will be challenging, but will allow a distillation of thought, bringing clarity.
It is said, “Language is the digestive juice of the mind.”
2. Creating a narrative:
Some people prefer to erase personal tragedy from their story line. If there is a suicide in the family, they insist it never is mentioned. It’s as though the incident never occurred.
Other people embrace their personal tragedy. They allow themselves to experience the pain and suffering. In the case of suicide, they acknowledge it and include it in their life story. The death of their loved one will remain a tragedy but also, a defining moment.
New lives are established by making a traumatic event part of your history.
I wrote this about our son, Adam.