As a psychotherapist, lately I’ve been asked, “How do you help people handle disasters like the Club Q shooting?”
It’s a good question. It sure looks like the world is going through a bad time: shootings at schools, stores, temples and churches, the ongoing murder of transgender men and women, the precariousness of a woman’s right to control her own body, climate change and extreme weather (drought, floods, hurricanes) and the possible return of Donald Trump to power…need I say more?
In addition, we each have our personal grief: during the past two months, three people close to me have died. Two of them were younger than I. I’ve had quite a bit of my own personal grief. But, in grieving these people, I’ve had a wake-up call: I now see that not only am I grieving losses, we are all grieving losses. We have all lived through trauma. We’ve all had a lot of shit thrown at us. No one escapes it, no matter how beautiful, rich or talented you are.
So, what can we do about it?
It’s tempting to use a strategy of distraction when trauma occurs, but it’s just a temporary band-aid on a deeper wound. And if you adopt a continuous strategy of staying busy to avoid feeling bad, it’s likely to result in boomerang grief. You keep putting it off for so long that, eventually, it hits you in a moment of weakness and throws you on the ground.
We learn nothing from not grieving our individual and collective trauma. We don’t empathize with other people as they go through their own trauma. Two friends of mine recently lost the beloved pets. This too is trauma. When I speak of “trauma”, I’m referring to events that are hard for us to understand and even harder to emotionally process.
During trauma, as a survival mechanism, the body and mind often shut down. This protects us from devastating breakdown. From such a traumatic experience, we produce a story that can persist for decades. This is why it’s so hard to break old patterns: trauma has “hard-wired” them into our brains, and they keep reappearing again-and-again.
Luckily, we can “re-wire” our brains. Neuroscience has proved it. If we “deal with” the aftermath of trauma, we can work with it and – somehow – make peace with it.
Author Joanna Macy has some suggestions on how to do this. 93-year-old Macy, who has long been one of my (s)heroes, is an international spokesperson for ecological and environmental causes; her work addresses psychological issues and contemporary science.
For this column, I have summarized four steps that Macy recommends to process trauma and grief:
- Coming from Gratitude — Gratitude quiets the mind, stimulating our empathy and confidence. Expressing our love for life on Mother Earth (and all who reside here) helps us to be more fully present and grounded as we acknowledge the individual and collective pain we carry.
- Honor Our Pain for the World — When we honor our pain and are willing to learn from it, we realize that our personal pain is connected with the pain of everyone else. We can’t run from it (God knows we’ve tried), but if we’re willing, we can grieve and learn from it.
- Seeing with New Eyes — We begin to sense a larger life within us. We appreciate our relatedness to all that is: people, animals, plants and the earth itself. We feel our power to change and experience our connections with past and future generations.
- Going Forth — We go forth to do what is ours to do, based on our situation and gifts. We stop waiting for the “perfect” situation where we’re guaranteed not to fail. We know each step of our healing journey will bring new perspectives and opportunities. Whether we “succeed” or not, we emerge stronger and wiser (even if a little beat up).
In Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work That Reconnects, co-authors Joanna Macy and Molly Brown address the anguish experienced by those of us who confront the recurring traumas of our time. They show how grief, anger, and fear are healthy responses to threats to life and – when honored – can free us from paralysis or panic.
Since trauma isn’t likely to ever go away, let’s find ways to work with it. Ironically, at this time of year, the “trauma” of Joseph and Mary being turned away from the Inn and having to give birth to their child in a barn was the start of something really big…What can you learn from your trauma?
—Michael Kimmel is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in helping LGBTQ clients achieve their goals and deal with anxiety, depression, grief, sexually addictive behavior, coming out, relationship challenges and homophobia. Contact him at 619-955-3311 or visit lifebeyondtherapy.com.