We all suffer trauma at some time in our lives. It may be a small trauma, such as falling in love with the boy or girl in your seventh-grade class who didn’t reciprocate your feelings. But generally we think of trauma as something big and difficult to endure: the death of a loved one, unexpected serious illness or accident, a physical attack or physical/sexual abuse.
Sometimes it can be hard even to let ourselves grasp the magnitude of what has happened. It can be easy to say, “Oh, just my bad luck.” Or “If I wasn’t so stupid it wouldn’t have happened.” Sometimes the trauma is so great that we cannot actually believe it happened and block it from our memory. As a result, we don’t share it with anyone. This does not mean that it goes away. A very commonly recognized result of unmourned trauma is post-traumatic stress disorder. Unmourned trauma can cause major difficulties in life such as anxiety, depression or dependence on self-soothing substances such as drugs or alcohol.
The major problem with experiencing trauma is the sense that one cannot prevent it. It comes out of the blue and we can feel helpless either to stop it or do anything about it once it has occurred. It is that sense of helplessness and inability to shape our own life experience that can be the source of the inner tension we can feel after trauma. So what can we do if we encounter trauma or if we struggle with memories of trauma?
Because the major trauma problem is feeling unable to prevent or avoid it, then the best thing we can do is to mourn the loss in a way that takes care of yourself first and foremost. Do every constructive thing you can to take charge and make your life better.
For example, if you lose a loved one through death, perhaps you could engage in volunteer work that mattered greatly to your loved one. If you or a family member has a serious illness, take charge of all that you can to make the situation the best it can be. Don’t be passive. Be active. When you experience being in charge of what is possible, it can be a very effective way to mourn an unpreventable loss.
In contrast with that old thought that we need to be strong and private in response to loss, it really does help to talk about the loss and what it means to us today. Talking with a friend can be helpful if that friend has the ability to listen and not offer unsolicited advice. Talking with a thoughtful clergyperson or a counselor also can help. As you put your feelings out there, ways to take care of yourself often will emerge and enable you to plan and achieve something that will actually make your life better.
Most important, if you are experiencing or have experienced trauma, don’t hold it inside. Find someone you trust who can understand and will want to know about your experience. The value of this kind of conversation is not found in receiving advice from someone who may or may not be qualified to give it. It is in acknowledging the trauma and realizing that you need not experience it alone.
Walter D. Miller, LCSW, is a New Eastside clinical social worker who specializes in work with children, adolescents and adults. Contact him at (312) 856- 0230.