by Ellen McSweeney, LGSW, Clinical Psychotherapist at CEPS
When someone comes to therapy wanting to recover from a traumatic event, the word “grief” is rarely at the top of their minds. They may feel haunted by traumatic memories, may feel “constantly on edge,” or be overwhelmed by feelings of shame and alienation. But beneath the confusing and fragmented swirl of emotions that trauma creates, there is also often an element of grief.
In this blog post, I’d like to explore how and why grief might be present at the heart of a traumatic experience. In my work with clients, I have found that when we reframe traumatic experience to include elements of loss, we can increase self-compassion – and self-compassion is one of the most critical ingredients for our healing and growth.
The “standard definition” of grief is what most of us expect to feel when a loved one dies. But there is another, broader understanding of grief which includes any situation where change and loss are happening. We may feel grief when experiencing major identity shifts (such as marriage, divorce, parenthood, and empty-nesting). We may experience grief when leaving a beloved home or changing jobs. Even changes that society usually celebrates, like getting married or becoming a parent, involve our lives turning upside down. We embark on a new chapter of our lives, leaving behind beloved aspects of “who we were before.”
Here, we can expand our definition of grief a step further. Human beings also grieve the loss of our hopes, dreams, and aspirations. We grieve things that were very much alive in our hearts and minds, although they may not have had a concrete existence.
Equipped with this more expansive definition of loss, we can begin to see how loss can be found at the heart of many traumatic experiences. For example: imagine that my client Talia has endured childhood trauma in the form of sexual abuse by an older cousin. When Talia bravely disclosed the abuse to her mother, she was not believed – and she was left largely on her own to grapple with the aftermath of abuse.
While Talia has most certainly been violated in a traumatic way, she has also endured a series of losses. In particular, these are losses of what could have, or should have, been. She has lost the opportunity to experience childhood innocence and safety – which all human beings deserve. She has lost the ability to trust and confide in the person who was supposed to protect and care for her.
As with any form of grief work, this not for the faint of heart. It is also not necessarily the first step. In Judith Herman’s amazing book Trauma and Recovery, she names three phases of trauma therapy:
- Safety and Stabilization,
- Remembrance and Mourning, and
- Reconnection (i.e., returning to the world and re-engaging with life, and sharing your unique gifts).
Notice that mourning comes after we have found some sense of safety and stability. In my experience, grieving our trauma-related losses is one of the most challenging tasks in trauma therapy. In many ways, grief work requires us to become the person we didn’t have “back then:” a compassionate and wise adult who can listen to the story we are telling and understand what the trauma has cost us. This self-compassion is the birthright of every human being, and it can become a kind of healing superpower — one we carry with us everywhere we go.
Ellen McSweeney, LGSW is a Clinical Psychotherapist at CEPS. She specializes in helping individuals heal from the impacts of childhood trauma. To learn more about Ellen or to schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation with her, click here.