The Separation of Grief and Trauma

When I was a Freshman in High School, I was raped, by an acquaintance at his own graduation party. I had never been kissed before, I had never explored my own sexuality with another person, and this situation was forced on me in a way that left me completely immobilized. At the time, my family (loving and supportive in their own ways) was not in a place that my young mind believed they could handle this information, so I told absolutely nobody for many years. Instead, what I did do, is find ways to work as hard as I could in past times that I enjoyed, and tried to find a way to escape high school. I took my GED, and left for college, having never told a soul, received therapy, or dealt with my situation in any way. And while I had a few boyfriends in high school, I had still never been able to have sex, or experience normal relationships, because I had never dealt with the fact that my first sexual encounter was traumatic, violent, and completely out of my control.

Several years later, I would start a relationship with someone that genuinely showed loving interest in me, initially. My lack of experience in relationships, due to the fact that I avoided them at all costs, was evident from the the onset. I was in constant fear, and yet I threw myself into it like I was a young inexperienced teenager because the time that should have been mine to figure out these initial awkward steps had essentially been stolen from me. I began to have panic attacks, followed by insane decision making (such as moving in after the first date, and then marrying that person only months after meeting them despite WILDLY obvious indications about his own infidelity and lies). I followed him everywhere, regardless of what he did to me, regardless of how he treated my family, regardless of who else he hurt and how he hurt them. My weight skyrocketed, and during this time of absolute chaos my depression and anxiety reached breaking points, showing itself in suicide attempts and strange systemic illnesses that a person my age shouldn't ever be struggling with.


All throughout this, we pretended to try and live a normal life, with having a family and jobs and homes. I went through years of fertility treatments, we moved jobs whenever his bad behavior would get him fired, and we moved Cities or States when he would cheat again, so that I could reset my environment around me to avoid dealing with the issues that were right in front of me. I would carefully pack up our trauma in a box, and place it on the Uhaul, like precious trinkets that neither of us really wanted. It wasn't until after that marriage ended, and another one started that I really started to understand just how much the initial trauma and the subsequent traumas created by that trickle effect, had not allowed me to Grieve the loss of my innocence, the loss of my trust in partners, and the loss of my relationship with friends and family. And I still haven't allowed myself to fully Grieve. Unfortunately, what I have learned over 27 years is that partners aren't to be trusted completely, sex is something to survive, and traumatized grief is a wildly different beast to face down than grief alone. As my studies into Trauma have evolved, I needed a framework by which to view it. When researching those who have come before and their understanding of Trauma, Peter Levine was an inspiration. And currently, the work of Dr. Odelya Gertel Kraybill is catching my attention, with the Expressive Trauma Integration model.


Psychological Trauma is defined as: "damage to a person's mind as a result of one or more events that cause overwhelming amounts of stress that exceed the person's ability to cope or integrate the emotions involved, eventually leading to serious, long-term negative consequences. Trauma is not the same as mental distress."


Dr Odelya Gertel Kraybill says: "Clinicians may be technically correct in diagnosing such clients as having Depression, Anxiety, Bipolar disorder, personality disorders, RAD, Addictions, Eating Disorders and so forth. But when trauma lies at the core of symptoms, such a diagnosis can harm more than it helps. Trauma integration is a complex journey with emotional, cognitive, physical, spiritual and social aspects. A single strategy approach doesn't go very far in this journey." All this to say that Trauma is complicated, vast, and can lead to a wild spiral of stress and dysfunctional coping that affects a persons, life, health, sense of wellbeing, relationships, and ability to function in the world. And it is the marriage of Trauma and Grief that can be the most complicated. When you have Traumatic Grief, you cannot fully process the Grief until you have tackled and integrated the Trauma.


What is most vital is the re-integration. The ability to balance the fear, redefine safety, find stable footing. If we had to look at the complication that Trauma can bring to Grief it would be adding Fear to Sadness. And when you think about what most people would self-describe as Trauma, this makes a lot of sense. Traumatic events are those that are unexpected to the victim. When a tiger jumps out of the darkness to attack you, and kills the loved one standing beside you, you won't be able to fully process that loss until you can move through the completely overwhelming fear that the tiger will attack you again. This is a hardwired survival mechanism in the brain.


Dr Odelya Gertel Kraybill has created a 6 Stage Process to Integrate Trauma. I'll place the visual below but it's very important to understand that this is not a linear, go-through-it-once-and-you're-done kind of roadmap. This is an ever evolving, ever changing, definition of steps that you may find yourself in, much like the stages of grief. Wherever you find yourself, once you have identified that step, you can make the movements necessary to advance to the next step.

A vital step in re-integration is the understanding that we are all expressive beings, and that our expression may very well be the key to our salvation. Under the guidance of trained individuals or through a lot of work in self-reflection; healing and beauty can be found in creativity, awareness, mindfulness and art.


The interesting thing about Trauma work is that it requires both a Top Down as well as a Bottom Up approach. What I mean by this is - some of the areas in the brain where Trauma is stored cannot be accessed by Cognitive approaches. They are stored in lower, more primitive parts of the brain. And until we approach these memories from the Bottom Up (primitive, non-speaking), we cannot process them successfully from the Top Down (reason, cognitive).


We also know that Trauma work requires Grounding and providing a deep sense of safety to the primitive brain. Creating safe spaces both internally and externally are absolute necessities for the brain to fully engage in Trauma work. Once that has been established, then we can creatively focus on the primitive brain. Using tools and techniques that facilitate body-awareness (grounding and embodiment), improve the senses and therefore the use of both sides of the brain, strengthen the vagal tone, and promote a reorganization and formation of brain responses to triggers is vital to overcoming the Fear. Some of the simplest pieces can create a sense of grounding and accommodation in a person's recovery process. Somatic Bodywork, Expressive Arts, Dance and Movement, Mindfulness and Self-Compassion, Breathwork, Neurofeedback, and of course Diet and Nutrition. But without the initial steps of moving those memories from the Bottom to the Top, or without attempting to use those pieces to assist with that movement, the Trauma itself will remain as a dormant tiger waiting to jump out of the bushes. True Trauma Work understands that the process is messy, and disorganized, and a lifelong process of balance and reorganizations, and coping strategies. And there is beauty in that. Some of the most beautiful things imaginable come rising from the ashes of Trauma, but we have to let go of the fear long enough to let it burn. Once we find balance in safety, once we remove the hold that Trauma has, once our muscles relax and our body is aware of itself, and the heart beat has stopped pounding in our ears........then the sadness can wash over us from the Grief. This isn't a failure of the process. It's the gift.


Sabbath Schrader, RN is a Registered Labor and Delivery Nurse, and a Birth Trauma Resolution Therapist in Des Moines, IA. She owns Sacred Health a Holistic Movement and Provider Collaborative with Yoga, Mental Health Counseling, Yoga Therapy, Bodywork like Massage and Chiropractic, Midwifery, Workshop, Classes, and more. Most of the practitioners called to this space have trainings specific to working with those that have experienced Trauma. Reintegration, Safety, and Grounding is the Purpose behind Sacred Health. Because We Are All Designed for Wellness. And we all deserve it too.

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