No one ever told me how sorrow traumatizes your heart, making you think it will never beat exactly the same way again. No one ever told me how grief feels like a wet sock in my mouth. One I’m forced to breathe through, thinking that with each breath I’ll come up short and suffocate. ~Sarah Noffke, Awoken
Grief is its own beast. It comes and goes in waves, in blasts, in trickles. In the early days of a loss or trauma, the grief can be erratic, unpredictable, and seemingly constant all at once. With time, and processing, the sensations of grief become less pronounced; in some cases and ways we can predict when it will crop up. And even with the growing ability to predict, it will still come out of nowhere, shocking us, and sometimes bringing us back down to our knees.
We can grieve many things. The obvious death of someone we love(d). The death of a relationship, be it a sexually intimate one or a friendship. The endings that come with changing jobs, or moving homes, or starting or graduating from school. The endings that are also associated with beginnings – marriage, birth of a child.
We often don’t acknowledge all the things we need to grieve. Especially when we are told that we should be happy all. the. time. Especially when perhaps we are actually happy about the change. Like the birth of a child.
And yet, beginnings mean endings. And those endings, even if joyous, carry some amount of grief.
When we start to look at the ways trauma affects us, and our grieving process, things can become even more complex. Our grief can be around a mixture of events. A new traumatic event can trigger any or all of our old ones. Loss can also trigger those older traumatic experiences, whether the loss itself could be classified as traumatic or not.
Our nervous systems get hijacked. Our emotions seem to run rampant. We can’t find a sense of ground or stability or perhaps even reality.
What also often happens with loss and traumatic events is a deep wanting for things to be different. A resistance if you will to what now is. This wanting different, this wanting events beyond our control (or even within our control) to not have happened, can be helpful. It can be information for how to move forward.
It also has the potential of keeping us stuck in that wanting and not finding ways to, slowly, gently, delicately, take those next steps in moving forward.
I don’t like the word “acceptance.” There is much that is implied in that word, that our culture has put on that word, that I do not like, that I believe is actually harmful.
In our current culture the idea of “acceptance” is used to silence. If we would just accept that life is the way it is, then we’d shut the hell up about it. We’d just accept and become compliant. We’d just accept and stop feeling about it and going on about it already.
That’s not really what acceptance, in mindfulness terms, is supposed to be about. And it’s definitely not what it is about for me.
Acceptance is about perhaps wanting things to be different, and also acknowledging that they aren’t. It is wishing we would have done something different, or someone hadn’t done something to us, and also knowing that those events did in fact happen. In this acknowledging and knowing, we can make decisions on how to proceed instead of remaining stuck in the wishing and wanting only.
Perhaps that means offering an apology and doing the work of repair and making amends. Perhaps that means going into therapy. Perhaps that means unraveling some of our own story and moving forward. Perhaps that means setting boundaries.
Regardless of how we proceed, there is a moving forward. A letting go in some ways, an embracing in others. An acknowledgement that things are not what we may want them to be, and even so we will find a way to move forth.
This is what we also call resilience.
Those of us with any type of trauma history, and perhaps especially those with complex trauma, have often had our resilience taken from us. That is part of the definition of trauma in fact, that inability to let go and move forward. That stuckness.
This is not to say that those of us with trauma histories should just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and get over it already. Because we all know that doesn’t work.
Instead, to develop our resilience, we need to process our trauma. We need to find ways to help release it from our bodies. To soothe our nervous systems. To connect to our boundaries and reclaim our bodies as our own. To find ground and our sense of center. To acknowledge and utilize our resources. To come into our bodies and listen, deeply, to the stories they have to share and to allow them move out in such a way that while the story is never truly gone from our memory, it is no longer living in our body.
As we process the trauma that lives in our bodies, we build our resilience. As we build resilience we are able to respond to new traumatic events in a different way, so that they do not impact us in the same, often debilitating, ways of past traumas. As we process old trauma, we learn how to process new events.
Grief is part of this process. Both the process of grief that these things have happened, as well as the grief of change, of letting go and setting down old ways of being and creating space for new.
Grief, like trauma, lives in our bodies. When we experience the death of a relationship, be that the other person actually died or we are no longer in contact with them, our bodies respond. We physically miss them, whether we were sexually intimate or not. (There is science behind this).
So like trauma, the ways to process grief involves coming into our bodies, listening to them, finding ways to soothe them, learning where we end and another begins (i.e. boundaries and body reclaiming), connecting to ground and center and the present moment.
This process is not easy. It is often not fun. It is also often incredibly uncomfortable. And in my personal opinion, it is so deeply worth it.
This essay was originally written for my weekly newsletter in October 2017 and has been edited for publication here. If you’d like to read my most recent essays, you can subscribe here.