Before our son’s tragic death, my husband and I never experienced paralyzing, gut-wrenching sorrow that caused us to howl unconsolably, curled up in our bed at night.
Of course, we’d mourned the deaths of close friends and family. We felt their absence. But never had we experienced anything like this. Numb, disoriented, and confused, we physically grieved the loss of our son, Ty, and wondered if our broken hearts would ever heal.
Doctors have a word for these emotions—trauma.
Trauma is a Wound
The word gets tossed around a lot. So, what is it?
According to H. Norman Wright, a licensed therapist in California, the word trauma comes from the Greek word, traumatikos, which means wound.
Although the Greeks used the term for physical injuries, today it’s just as likely to refer to emotional wounds that can be caused by any world-shattering loss, including:
- Mental, physical, or sexual abuse
- Violence and war
- Job loss
- Toxic relationships
The list goes on.
The Stages of Grief
Having no background in psychology, I reached out to experts, including board-certified counselor Marcia Messer, to get an idea of how trauma manifests and how to work through it. She had much to offer. She, too, had struggled with extreme grief.
A financial expert’s gross mismanagement of her family’s savings caused her trauma. The bungling destroyed her sense of financial security, and triggered long-buried anger when she saw an advertisement promoting the services of a different consultant.
“I hadn’t thought about it in a long time, but realized I was still mad,” she says. “My teeth were on edge. He made a lot of retirees go bankrupt.” She also realized she hadn’t worked through the stages of grief developed by the world-renowned psychiatrist and hospice pioneer, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross:
- Denial (avoidance, confusion, shock, fear)
- Anger (frustration, irritation, anxiety)
- Bargaining (struggling to find meaning)
- Depression (overwhelmed, helpless, hostility, flight)
The final stage is acceptance—the goal for everyone living through these emotions, Marcia says. This is where you begin exploring other options and move on.
Overcoming Trauma Takes Work
Kübler-Ross based the model on her work with terminally ill patients. Professionals and grievers, alike, have criticized her work mainly because they mistakenly believe the stages are linear, experienced in a specific order. Furthermore, not everyone will experience all five.
“Her model is probably the most famous, and it is helpful,” Messer says. “It helps you identify what’s going on. One week, you may feel anger, the next denial. You go in and out. Grief can come in waves when you least expect it,” she adds. “The important message is that you have to go through it. It takes work. The last thing you want is to get stuck.”
Reaching the Promised Land
For Marcia, acceptance came when she realized she hadn’t forgiven the financial consultant. “I needed to do this to move on,” she says.
For me, it came when I started examining my relationship with Ty. In a letter, I asked him to forgive me. I had taken our relationship for granted. I should have told him every day that I loved him, was proud of him, and appreciated his qualities. Being his mother was an honor. But I didn’t. This failing haunted me and kept me from healing.
The letter written, a calmness fell over me, and with it, an unwavering faith I would see Ty again—just on a different plane.
Until that time comes, I will continue to take solace in a golden-colored flowering plant—the last gift Ty ever gave me.
Two months after he passed away, the plant also died, causing unimaginable anguish. But the flower didn’t really die. It reseeded well beyond the confines of its original container, and now returns every year as the gift that won’t stop giving. Have you any idea of the joy this eternal plant brings as it spreads more boldly across our garden?
Over the coming weeks, I will share stories about others who’ve dealt with trauma. Their success stories need to be told for the simple fact that they inspire and give hope, and everyone needs a little of that.