My Experience of Trauma
Author: Lisa Hudson
Excerpted from How Do We Tell the Children by Dan Schaeffer
When I went to bed on the night of October 22, 1983, my life was stable, predictable, safe, and happy. Within twenty-four hours, my world toppled, shattering into a million pieces. On October 23, the Marine Corps barracks where my husband lived was bombed, killing 241 service members as they slept.
I felt terror, fear, panic, anxiety, worry, and confusion. I couldn't sleep or eat. I felt numb and detached from my world, alone and abandoned, as if I were going to die. I remember only certain details about that first week, the most painful: when I turned on the TV and saw the grisly scene, when I got the news that John was missing in action, when I got the news that he was dead, when I saw my aunt and mother caring for my baby because I felt totally incapacitated.
I seemed to be grieving. I cried a lot. I felt a lot of emotional pain and loss, pining for my husband and the life I once had. But for the most part, I kept the terror, the unbearable fear, buried inside. I knew I had a baby to care for, and that being a depressed mother could lead to a depressed child. So I shut off my emotions in order to parent, and got very, very busy. I pretended to be okay. But I was really in shock for the most part of two years.
It was actually detrimental to me that others were encouraging me to "go on," when inside I wasn't ready. I was still trying to process what had happened and all the emotions that accompany a traumatic loss. They also encouraged me "not to think about it," or "put it behind me." What I really needed was to think about it, talk about it, and let my insides "scream" for a while-release the pain, so I could heal. Instead, all the busyness and avoidance just put a crude scab on a really infected wound.
The second year I became extremely depressed and hopeless. Going back over the trauma was not something I thought about doing, and even seemed impossible because others seemed to expect me to be over it. It was as if they expected me to avoid talking about him, and if I did, I would be crazy. If they only knew, I felt crazy inside not talking about it.
Actions That Can Help
There is nothing that can prepare you for a sudden, traumatic death. But there are things you can do afterward to help yourself cope better. Only then can you help your children cope.
Talk It Out
Talk and talk and talk to someone who will listen, patiently and nonjudgmentally. That may be a friend, a counselor, a minister. A therapist trained in trauma recovery would be an excellent choice. Or another person who has "been there" can be very helpful.
Review the Details
Talk about them: what you saw, heard, did, didn't do, where you were, what was going on around the trauma, what you felt.
Allow the Deepest, Darkest Feelings to Be Expressed
There are no rules about recovering from trauma. Be honest about what you feel-there is nothing bad or wrong to feel. You may find yourself resorting to former ways of coping (good and bad). This is called regression. It can be seen in forms of dependency on people or substances such as alcohol, drugs, or food.
Let Yourself Feel and Express Anger
After a traumatic loss, your set of assumptions about life changes. There can be tremendous anger at others, at the person who died, at those you thought could have prevented it, at yourself, at your children, at God.
Use Any and All Resources at Your Disposal
Join a support group or use Internet resources to chat with others who have suffered a traumatic loss, write a journal, get counseling or therapy, join a gym. Aerobic activity has been documented to reduce anxiety and help with trauma recovery.
Make Time for Yourself
Spend time in quiet. Meditate, pray, read, use guided imagery or relaxation. Walk. Jog. Get a massage. Be with people who comfort you, not those who push you. Know that you may feel more irritable, sleep less, get angry easier over little things, and be more impatient.
Allow Time to Pass Because You Have the Task of a Dual Recovery
At first you must deal with the trauma, then the grief. Trauma is different from grief in that there is much anxiety and damage to your emotions. Avoid stressful situations as much as possible, and simplify your life.
Have Realistic Expectations of Yourself and Your Children
Your life cannot and will not operate the way it did before the loss, so don't expect everything to go smoothly, nor for you or your children to behave the way they once did. Until there is time for healing, everyone will be reacting and acting in unpredictable and often confusing ways. Let yourself and your children know that trauma does not have a quick cure.
I still believe that the best things I did to recover from the trauma were staying close to my family; staying busy with things I enjoyed doing; being with others who were caring, calming, and supportive; and giving a lot of my time and energy to the upbringing of my son. Though I was traumatized and hurting, I literally immersed myself in that role. Sometimes I think I just didn't know what else to do. Giving myself so fully to him and his welfare helped me find a purpose for living, gave me a diversion from the trauma and grief, and was an investment that would pay great dividends.
Although I had to postpone many things in my own life until years later, the only thing I would do differently would be to have gotten professional help from the beginning and through the years that were so hard. Help is out there if you can recognize that you need it or want it. I thought a lot of what I was experiencing was just "normal," but what I didn't know was that I didn't have to suffer in silence about it. My friends got tired of my need to talk about the trauma long before I did, so I began to suppress too much and often drifted into unhealthy ways of coping to escape and ease the burden and pain.
Trauma recovery is a life-long process. Aspects of the trauma still surface from time to time even after all these years. But I know better how to cope with it when it does, and I know it is to be expected. I will never forget it, but I have learned to live with it and go on. New meanings have emerged, and my life has taken on a different view and direction. I have not escaped painful resurgences of the trauma, but I have learned to be gentle with myself when those times come. I continue to grow and learn.
Information about helping your child heal from trauma will be featured in the next issue. You can also read Lisa's article, "Mother and Son, A Life and Legacy Together" in TAPS Magazine archives.