Traumatic grief, part 3 of 5

Overcoming the fear of feelings

Did you ever wake up from a great dream and you tried to go right back to sleep so you could get back to that dream? I remember returning to a good dream once. That was really neat.

By contrast, when we’re having a bad dream, we try to wake up as soon as possible to end it. And we hesitate to go right back to sleep because we don’t want to go back to the bad dream. We’re glad to be out of that nightmare—being chased, spiders, monsters, snakes, falling, “that person” and/or “that place” we don’t ever want to dream about.

Going back
When we need to deal with a trauma that hasn’t been successfully grieved, we’re called to go back down The Road of Traumatic Grief into the bad dream—back into Trauma Town. This isn’t something that people do naturally. We don’t go right back to sleep to get back into the bad dream. We do everything possible to avoid it, don’t we?

In order to experience healing, though, we have to step back into those memories to do the necessary work to get them out of our minds and bodies. We have to examine our many, sometimes-conflicting feelings about the person or people involved. We have to write anger and/or good-bye letters. We have to cry. We have to acknowledge the impact that this person or experience has had on us and choose to no longer allow that negative impact/control. We have to say things like No more and Good-bye, and maybe more.

Ending the trauma
We have to end the trauma by looking at it, feeling it, expressing those feelings, doing the work to get the trauma out of us, establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries going forward, and experiencing closure on that relationship, chapter, experience.

Taking these steps takes time, courage and commitment.

Taking these steps sometimes requires us to work with a skilled professional counselor. We must be intentional. These steps don’t happen by accident. Time does not heal all wounds, unless we’re talking about a minor scratch on your arm.

Big T and little t
Hang on, Peaceful Readers. We’re about to take a sharp turn as counselor and Traumatic Grief expert Liz Taylor continues our tour of Trauma Town by teaching us about Big T and Little T.

Liz’s clients have watched a lot of people die in front of them due to the drug world. We have people who come in here running from the drug cartel. Layer upon layer of Traumatic Grief…. There’s Big Ts and Little Ts. [An example of Little T—Little Trauma—is that they] might see someone run over [by a car] in front of them. Depending on their resiliency, having grief that’s not happening directly to you is Little T. [But] they all still affect you. I’ve got probably seven clients who’ve had aunts and uncles killed in front of them [due to drugs]. Layers that you have to peel back—[like peeling an] onion….

The trauma onion
Let me jump in here and explain the “peeling an onion” expression. Sometimes counselors, social workers and other professionals refer to The Healing Journey using the “peeling an onion” metaphor. This is because onions have many layers. The largest layer or trauma is whatever is currently visible—the trauma that is causing the most discomfort and distress. As a layer or trauma is dealt with and removed (i.e., successfully grieved), the overall size of the traumatized person’s issues and distress—their Trauma Onion—has gotten smaller. The traumatized person feels better. The other traumas are still there, of course. Now the traumatized person can deal with the next-biggest issue—the new outside layer. The healing happens one layer—one trauma—at a time.

I like this metaphor. When we peel an onion, we cry. And we know that crying is an important part of moving successfully through The Season of Grieving.

Childhood impact
Back to Liz and our tour of Trauma Town…. Of the men in treatment where Liz works, 70 percent are dealing with Traumatic Grief. Liz says, “We’re running from something.” Many of her clients are in denial about the impact that their childhood had on them. Liz will ask one of her clients: “How many nights did you not get a story read? How many times did you play the game and nobody came? How many meals did you eat alone? How many times did they buy you off?” That’s one of the Little Ts, but it becomes a Big T when we’re in denial.

The use of various addictions to avoid feeling
I’m always looking for new types of therapy. That’s why I did the mirror revisioning thing. Bottom line: It’s all the same stuff—getting the person to understand that it’s not a short-term therapy and that it’s going to require you to FEEL.

They want this short-term, “I don’t want to feel it” thing. That’s why [people dive into] work, sex, video games, etc. In my group [therapy, we talk about] STERBS—Short-Term Energy Relieving Behaviors.

If you use something to the exclusion of the rest of your life, that’s an addiction.

Showers and food
I had a client who took six to eight showers or baths a day, trying to wash away the pain of abuse. Liz told him, “Now you can only take two showers per day.” It’s like coming off a drug—[making this] change.

[On] the shower thing, what I had him do was post a sign asking: “Why am I taking this shower?” I’m going to own that this shower is about shame. If I own it, it’s easier to recognize that it’s due to this addiction. When her client asks himself the question—Why am I taking this shower?—and he can honestly answer that he just mowed the yard and he’s all sweaty, he can take a shower, knowing that it’s for the right reason.

Liz tells us how difficult it is to help people stop their eating disorders because you have to eat.

With eating disorder clients, the questions are: “What am I trying to feed?” or “What am I trying to get rid of?” Liz is asking them to address their trauma… whether they were made to be perfect—which is a trauma, whether they were only loved because they were thin or [they only] got attention because they were getting too fat.

The many impacts of traumatic grief
People with Traumatic Grief experience very interrupted sleep, which means we fight a lot more drug and alcohol use, whether [the purpose is] to [help them] sleep or to wake up. They also experience “a lot of paranoia and intrusive thoughts.” Eating patterns get really messed up because some people with Traumatic Grief have reversed their days and nights. It impacts [their] work and the ability to focus.

Intrusive thoughts
Peaceful Readers, I’m going to interrupt our tour with Liz for the remainder of this post. First, let’s go over the issue of intrusive thoughts. What are intrusive thoughts? They’re thoughts you didn’t want—thoughts that seem to show up out of nowhere—thoughts that bother you. (A flashback is a memory of something that actually happened.)

An intrusive thought can be something that someone said to you in the past, probably more than once. Maybe it was something one of your parents said to you routinely—a mantra of sorts—a bad one. Or it can be this strange thought that seems to come out of nowhere. Whether or not you know where it comes from, it is not a happy thought. It bothers you. And it shows up again and again.

It indicates that all is not well. There is a trauma and/or a spiritual issue to be dealt with.


We’ll cover intrusive thoughts in more detail right after this five-part post on Traumatic Grief.

Strained relationships
Let’s spend a little time reflecting on the impact that Traumatic Grief will have on our relationships. Think about how interrupted and chronically-poor sleep affect you and your most-important relationships. Close your eyes and reflect on times when your sleep was bad, and how that affected you and the people around you.

Add to that… paranoia—unnatural fears. Add to that… intrusive, disturbing thoughts. Now pour on some strange eating patterns. Now, add in stress at work and difficulty focusing. What if you were to add drugs and/or alcohol? (Yes, smoking cigarettes may be your drug of choice.) Do you sense the cascading effect, the downward spiral, the desperation?

Fear and desperation
Think about how all of these factors combined would impact a once-close, important relationship. I think the words fear and desperation describe it best. A fearful, desperate person says fearful, desperate things and makes fearful, desperate choices, which result in extremely high-stress, strained relationships. As their beloved pulls away—emotionally and physically—because of the discomfort of the situation, the traumatized person becomes more fearful and desperate. Things can deteriorate very quickly.

The beloved’s needs
If the traumatized person has a significant other, the beloved/spouse needs his or her own supportive, wise friendships and resources in order to remain wise and supportive to the traumatized person during the journey up The Road of Traumatic Grief—the road out of Trauma Town.

In many ways, The Healing Journey is a team effort.

Your team
Who’s on your team? Think of all the people who help you to heal—by their example and encouragement. What books, music and other resources help you during The Season of Grieving?

If you’re praying to God, he’s on your team. If he’s not on your team, add him today. Start talking to him….

Overcoming the fear of feelings
Do you remember—from Time for Grieving, part 5—Liz’s group exercise about the flat tire? Let’s re-read this paragraph, in light of all that we’ve learned on our tour of Trauma Town.

The flat tire
Grief expert Liz Taylor does a wonderful exercise in her grief group to illustrate this truth: Time does NOT heal all wounds. Liz asks her group, “How many of you have had a flat tire?” All hands are raised. Then she asks, “How many of you pull up a chair and sit by the tire and wait for the tire to heal—to fill back up?” The group agrees that sitting and waiting would be ridiculous. She explains that this illustration is what grief is. It’s not going to heal itself. The group talks through all the many steps required to change the tire. Liz tells us: “I may be 20 years away from the event. It may not overwhelm me when I think of it, but it is still there.” Why is it still there? Because, in Liz’s words, “I haven’t processed anything.”

As traumatized people experience relief from pain by walking back into the painful memories and actually dealing with them in a positive, pro-active, healing way, they learn—powerfully—that they must travel all the way down The Road of Traumatic Grief and then back up again to experience healing and peace.

Hmmm…. Strange, but wonderful. We have to courageously face our traumas and process all the feelings involved. Then we can lay them down and leave them behind.

Coming next: In the next post, you’ll read about a waterfall and the grieving that it represents as a part of our healthy living.

Healing through truth and music
Peaceful Readers, I’ve found great healing in my life through the beauty and truth of God’s word and through music. I hope the truths and songs that I share at the end of each post will bless you too.

Truth from The Word: Isaiah 8:19-9:2

Song for Healing: This piece, also by Antonio Vivaldi, sounds like the fear and desperation we covered in this post. “Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 8, RV 315, “L’Estate”: III. Presto, (The Four Seasons, Summer)” performed by the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra.

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