This article is the second installment of a three-part series. The first article of this series is Healing from Trauma: Why Can’t I Just Forget About It?
After establishing physical and emotional safety, it is possible to begin remembering and mourning a traumatic event. In other words, it becomes feasible to address the trauma story.
Remembering the trauma begins by placing the event into your life history. The event is no longer pushed under the proverbial rug or thought of as your defining life experience. Rather, the traumatic event is given a time and place in your life. It is important to review your life before the traumatic event, analyze and understand the circumstances that led up to the traumatic event, and look at your life after the event. Recalling the reactions of significant others, including those reactions and experiences that were wounding or even re-traumatizing is also necessary. These secondary wounding experiences are acknowledged, grieved over, and worked through. Doing this work allows your personal meaning of the trauma to come to the surface.
After creating this narrative timeline, or sketch of your life, the next step is to reconstruct the traumatic event: transform the trauma memory from a frozen moment of terror to a memory that has words, a sense of time, and reveals your feelings and interpretations of the event. Reconstructing the event uses any and all memory, no matter how fragmented, detailed, or seemingly random they are. As the survivor, you work with whatever memory you have.
This work is done one small piece at a time. It is critical that the pace of this work does not lead to feeling disempowered or spiraling downward. A competent trauma therapist will work with you to determine the best pace and allow you to have a say. The end result for most survivors is that their trauma story is no longer one of humiliation and shame. Rather, it is one of virtue and dignity.
Once the traumatic event is remembered and the memory is connected to words, a sense of time and emotions—that which was lost—must be mourned. Trauma may or may not result in physical losses, but it always results in psychological losses. Emotionally connecting to your losses is a courageous act and is fundamental to the mourning process. The act of connecting to your emotions feels scary. Part of this fear arises because acknowledging what was lost confirms the loss and requires you to claim the new you. This work can feel endless, but this phase of healing cannot be skipped, nor can it be rushed.
The amount of time spent in this phase is different for every individual. Psychiatrist Judith Herman writes that survivors will know that they are nearing the end when “it occurs to the survivor that perhaps the trauma is not the most important, or even the most interesting, part of her life story… [she] reclaims her own history and feels renewed hope and energy for engagement with life. Time starts to move again. . . The traumatic experience truly belongs to the past. At this point, the survivor faces the tasks of rebuilding her life in the present and pursuing her aspirations for the future.”
This emotional work should not be done without the guidance of a trained professional who can help you through your healing. As with all of my articles, the information in this article is intended to educate and is not meant as a substitution for individual therapy.
Herman, Judith Lewis. (1997). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence from domestic abuse to political terror. Jackson, TN: Basic Books.
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