emotional discomfort

The Importance of Grieving—Being Able to Bounce Back

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“Grief and Resilience Live Together.” – Michelle Obama

Like some of you, I grew up in a chaotic household. There were a total of 12 kids by the time I left home for college. There were my 4 sisters and 4 brothers plus my oldest sister’s 3 children. My parents raised them for much of their lives. Chaos became normal. I learned to stuff the impact of trauma and act like it never impacted me. This included the fist fights between my brothers, my dad’s rage-full outbursts, physical violence, sexual abuse, religious abuse, and abandonment.

I hid the trauma by playing sports and having a lot of friends. The only way you might see a crack in my armor was that I did not thrive academically and was very shy around girls. However, these two issues were considered normal and other kids had these challenges as well. The warning signs for concern were well hidden.

I remember one time watching one of my brothers fight a neighbor when he was a teenager. The neighbor wrapped a chain around my brother’s head and blood spurted everywhere. I watched my brother throw the neighbor to the ground and pummel him into submission and unconsciousness. I thought my brother had killed the neighbor. I ran home and did not say anything because my mom told me I would get into trouble if I went to watch the fight. I learned to stuff my fear and anxiety and pretended to be calm and casual the rest of the evening.

I also learned to stuff the pain and fear of sexual abuse perpetrated on me and other family members by a pastor and leader in our church. The offending pastor would tell me how mature I was for my age in that I never showed my feelings of hurt in the presence of trauma and crisis. I wore that affirmation like a badge and in the presence of many traumas that happened to me and my family. I thought the way I stayed cool and stuffed my feelings made me very resilient. 

This worked very well for me later when I was a minister and I listened to listen to one horrible story after another. There was grief from death and loss from suicide. One person even shot and killed himself over the phone while I was trying to talk him out of it and get him some help. I had learned to stuff that tragic experience and so much more for so long and thought this was what it meant to be resilient. 

But then came a day when I could no longer stuff things down. It was triggered by a college student in my college ministry who committed suicide. I met the family at the hospital where she was pronounced dead. The family in their grief lashed out at me and blamed me for their daughter’s death because I had not prevented her from checking out from a mental hospital. It was an illogical accusation. I walked away from that conversation numb and disoriented. I had been in these situations many times before. But, this time I could tell I was unravelling inside. 

I went into a deep funk of depression, became non-functional, and lost 40 pounds over the next 6 weeks because I ate very little.  It felt like trying to push down one more crisis and stuff it in my memory. But, there was no room for any more. In turn, when I tried to push one crisis down another memory would spring forth. It was like a game of whack-a-mole—like old springs that could no longer be held down. all the past memories of trauma that I previously stuffed sprang up all at once. What I once thought was being resilient turned out to be dysfunctionally stuffing pain and never grieving any of the past trauma. 

Resilience requires grieving. You cannot simply recognize the reality of deep hurt and figure that you can go forward acting as if it never happened. You may think you are OK and act as if you are fine, but it does catch up with you. Trauma researcher Bessel Van der Kolk is correct in saying your body will keep the score! The trauma is kept in the tissues of your body. Eventually, I stumbled into a treatment process that helped me work out what had been stuffed deep inside. 

You will need to do the same.  Here are a few considerations to create true resilience. 

1. Scrub the wound. This is what I had to do. I went through the Rolodex of memory and grieved every memory of abuse that came up. It included all the sexual abuse, physical domination, and abandonment from my childhood to the present. I beat pillows/broke my therapist’s tennis racquet— not one but many of them. I had more rage than I ever thought could exist inside. There was a lot of energy expressed and tears shed. There were many ambivalent feelings about God, relationships, and my work. I sat with all the feelings and let them come to the surface. I learned that the only way to address them is to go through them. It wasn’t pretty but it was necessary. I learned to fall apart and put myself back together. I didn’t need to be mollycoddled, I needed to face the reality of what is. 

2. Practice regulating your emotions. At some point in your recovery, you must sit with those feelings that you avoided through addiction and a cocktail of other experiences.  When I went through a crisis, there was no somatic experience, EMDR, brain spotting, etc that is available today. However, I did engage in extensive experiential work including regressive processing. I practiced sitting with emotional discomfort and learned to go down and come back up. I practiced living with uncertainty. It is connected to the freedom of release from the bondage of past trauma. It felt like free falling into emptiness at times. It was all part of the process of learning to sit with discomfort. I am glad I did. Sitting with the discomfort, sharing what it was like, and expressing my emotions helped to regulate my feelings. 

3. Grieve the accumulated losses. If you stuffed the pain as I did, there are so many losses to unpack and grieve. Deaths, opportunities, relationships of both family and friends and the lack of presence in the moment all need to be grieved. For me, it was the emptiness that was particularly difficult to sit with. Also, it was the loss of relationships from those who left but remained among the living that has been the most difficult. Those who died I was somehow able to ease into letting go and giving them back to the universe. But, those who remain who I felt was part of my blood and bone, family members and friends who cut off relationships, have been the most difficult losses to grieve. Some losses will hurt the rest of my life. You will probably experience the same.

4. Use your imagination to create the inspiration for a positive and sustaining future.  In recovery, I learned to take advantage of the power of gratitude and to resource inspiration for fulfillment in the present moment. Gratitude combined with my imagination has transformed pain into purpose and empowered purpose from grief and loss. Affirmations, connecting with people who have similar experiences but refuse to remain a victim, and using the “as if” tool have all deepened belief in myself to create the destiny that I am here to fulfill. You will need to do the same. The possibilities of healing are all around you but you must activate your intentions. 

    In the end, Michelle Obama has it right “Grief and resilience” go together.