Author: Jennifer Keeling
Imagine you’re driving. The sun is shining. There’s a cool breeze and a clear blue sky. You’re determined that nothing is going to get in the way of having a good day. Then, just around a bend, you slow to a stop. A tree has fallen across the road and there is no way around. Your mind begins to race. How did this happen? What should you do? Your only choices seem to be to stay put, helpless in the face of the obstruction in your path, or just go back the way you came. Trauma can often feel this way, especially if you don't know how to cope with it.
Trauma and grief can seem very similar, making it difficult to decipher which symptoms you’re experiencing. Grief and trauma must be separated out and treated independently. According to the Association for Death Education and Counseling, grief includes the “physical, behavioral, cognitive, and emotional experience of and reactions to loss,” while a traumatic death can be “unanticipated, shocking or violent; may be inflicted, self-inflicted or unintentional.” The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines trauma as “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”
After my husband died by suicide in 2009, I didn’t yet know there was a difference between the two. I knew that I was experiencing pain and heartache from his death. I didn’t realize until much later, that before I could work through the pain of grief, I had to first confront the trauma associated with finding his body. Prior to this, there were some days that felt manageable and others that were more difficult, with unexpected obstacles. One example was the experience of recurring nightmares. Their imagery rattled me to my core, haunting me throughout the next day. Other days, my symptoms were more subtle yet persistent. I had an ongoing sense of pending tragedy, with constant worry of something bad happening to my kids. There were moments when I couldn’t go out into our garage without having a panic attack. These obstacles were like roadblocks, keeping me from making forward movement. The feeling of being “stuck in place” became so powerful that I knew something had to change. I began working with a therapist who had expertise in treating trauma.
The most challenging part of the therapeutic process was mentally revisiting the night my husband died. I had worked so hard at trying to keep that in the back, recessed part of my memory. Once I began addressing my mental injury, I was able to begin the process of grieving and healing. I also discovered there were no shortcuts around, under, or over that metaphorical tree blocking the road. I needed to put in the time and hard work to remove it. Some days, my progress felt small or non-existent, but I chipped away at my trauma, one branch at a time. Eventually, I worked through each piece until I cleared the road. I can now reflect back to see how my hard work resulted in progress, and I am all the better and healthier because of it.
There are many options for trauma-informed care and treatment. A few I found to be beneficial are: “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DPT), and Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PET). These therapy techniques are designed to target and reduce trauma symptoms, and should be done with an experienced and skilled clinician. Before settling on any form of trauma therapy, you should first learn about the various options, explore what is available in your area, and research therapists to learn what they specialize in. When you are informed, it can help in terms of selecting a course of therapy that is the best fit for you.
Jennifer Keeling is the surviving spouse of Army First Sergeant Ronald Keeling and serves on TAPS Suicide Postvention Programs.