As my apprenticeship in the mastery of grief progresses, I see that the “painful or sad” part of ours doesn’t want to stay there forever on its own. Although we don’t notice it consciously, the fact that human beings are wired to connect is engraved into our tissues sets us in motion. And again, I know from experience that sudden and/or unexpected deaths and other sudden and/or unexpected losses other than death leave scars in extremely deep places in our existence. I am talking about areas which are beyond words and where words cannot reach the dark wells in the far end.
From the places where grief and trauma intersect
At first, I would like to explain why I feel the need to write about this. I am neither a grief expert nor a therapist. I am a student (apprentice) who is trying to connect to the master respectfully accepting the mastery of grief. I am studying grief counselling in my enthusiasm and curiosity, but I am not doing it to become an expert as I don’t believe that one can be an expert in the area of grief. I wish the things I learn while studying make me a person more sensitive about the grief period of people around or people who reach me. It breaks my heart that grief periods are regarded as only a medical procedure or profession. Much as grief is experienced personally, it has never been regarded as a burden on the shoulder of one person throughout history. It has been shared by communities. What therapists and counsellors are currently trying to do in a room (or on a screen) was carried out by people living in the village in the past. In this sense, more than anything else, I believe the power of listening to each other and supporting one another in a way to hold space for everybody to reach their own resources during the grief period. Life happens to us all. I am talking about being able to look in the eyes of our friend and relatives wandering those deep wells and seeing them as they are. (*)
Traumatic grief means grief including the elements of trauma in itself. Well then, how sudden should a grief period experienced due to death or other losses be defined as traumatic grief? There is no easy or standard definition of this. It is a situation changing from one person to another. We could say the same thing for trauma as well.
No perfect and unchanging definition of trauma could be made, either. However, our starting point is the impact the event has on our nervous system. I am repeating that: not the event itself, but the impact it has on you. (In other words, even if the event is traumatic, it may not have a traumatic impact on you or the other way around.)
You might be laughingly talking about an accident you had with a relative without cuts and bruises. However, that relative could behave as if s/he had a different accident staying under the effect of the accident for very long. When you are laid off, a person with a similar experience might be talking about how easy it is to find a job in your field. However, you could be experiencing being laid off differently because of the pattern “you have to be successful in everything” you have heard from your parents since your childhood. What is important is how much difficulty your nervous system has had as a result of the event you have experienced, because your body starts to work differently when you come across with something above the capacity of your nervous system.
I sincerely recommend Bessel van der Kolk if you want to have more detailed information. If you can follow resources in English, he has lots of articles and speeches on internet for free. He has a book called “The Body Keeps the Score” translated into Turkish as well. According to Bessel, trauma affects central nervous system and changes memory i.e. the way we process and record our experiences. Trauma, in fact, is not a story of something that happened in the past, but the current scar of the pain, horror and fear living inside people. At the moment, still.
Moving on with Bessel, Amygdala, located in the medial temporal lobe, just anterior to (in front of) the hippocampus, is like a fire alarm. It perceives the threat and starts to sound the alarm. When you experience an event pushing your nervous system, it becomes activated and gets larger. During this expansion period, it changes the natural ways of other parts of the brain needing to be active by sucking oxygen reaching the brain. Which parts? For example, frontal lobe with functions likes thinking rationally and complex, problem solving and making plans. Or hypothalamus which regulates sensation of hunger and thirst, controls body temperature and has effects on behaviour like sexual urge or hippocampus which has a role in memory and navigation. The functioning of all of this change due to a traumatic death or other traumatic losses.
In that case, how will knowing these affect us? Most probably a friend or a relative in grief period won’t come to us and say: “I have experienced a traumatic grief”. What will they say?
I still can’t sleep,
I can’t think of anything, remember anything or plan anything,
I can’t concentrate on anything,
I am always worried,
I don’t want to see anyone,
I am in a very fragile, sensitive and irritable mood,
I keep thinking about that event,
I find life extremely meaningless.
For sure most of these things are the things experienced in non-traumatic grief as well. Nevertheless, in traumatic grief, people could stuck in this way for longer or as Bessel argues, the event is still experienced due to the scars left in those people, not in the past. It comes back again in scent we perceive, a place we touch, something we see through our five senses as it is here and its scars are still here.
Forcing a person to talk in traumatic grief could affect a place reviving the trauma due to the affected parts of the brain I have mentioned above. That is, we can unintentionally push the person into an area where they could become traumatized. As a matter of fact, I can say that this is the reason why I am writing this. Having a heart-to-heat talk or saying “if you talk, you’ll get relieved” doesn’t work here.
If so, how can we invite them or keep a more secure space for them? The first step and the most valuable and important one all of us could do is staying with this person quietly without pushing for anything. It means “I am here and I can stay here as long as you want without talking”. A silence could be the best companion for the person. Don’t forget that this place is an area which is beyond words and where the person’s nervous system still carries the effects of the event. We can reach the places where words are unable to enter through silence. Afterwards, if that person feels like it and if it is within your knowledge and experience, it is possible to continue the journey through somatic (bodily) methods. As a very simple suggestion, you can ask the person which songs they think explain them well. And then, when you meet, you can spend time listening to these songs without pushing the nervous system by talking. I mean, briefly, you can follow a communication method from bottom to the top (through the body, with its guidance) not from the top to the bottom (not through a talk from the mind, from a logical part).
I have written lengthily. After reading this writing, what do I want you to keep in your mind and heart? That trauma and grief could intersect, that trauma could change the working of your brain, that you should see your grief and trauma from this perspective, that you are not alone and that we can step in the common area of these two with holy silence first. Each situation could not be fixed by talking. Let’s silence take our hands to take us to places where we are clear and fluid.
- If the person fells that they need to get some professional help, you could kindly tell them it would be a good idea to see an expert in grief and trauma. (Or if you think that you need to get some support after seeing your grief from this perspective).
- I am certainly not against dedicating oneself to a topic, steeping oneself in that topic and this journey’s being supported bay trainings. The word “expert” is firmly established in our language. It just doesn’t feel right its usage in such a way to create hierarchy. While grief is a concept with so many layers, changing one person to another and beyond standard definitions, people claiming to be experts in the topic creates a smile on being a human, but I don’t feel comfortable with it. An expert definition rooted in grief companionship or grief accompaniment feels right in my heart.
Yazının Türkçe versiyonu: Yas ve travma; travmatik yas