Monday, April 12, 2010

Grief and Mourning Part II of III - Some Reasons Why It's So Hard

Hello Friends:

The canonical wisdom about healing trauma is that a person needs to complete the full, natural grieving process, or the symptoms of trauma will keep reappearing, demanding our attention. Back to Judith Lewis Harris' book "Trauma and Recovery" that says, "Survivors of chronic childhood abuse face the task of grieving not only what they lost but also what was never theirs to lose. The childhood that was stolen from them is irreplaceable."

Seems like a tall order ... and as I said in my last post, I don't really want to do this.  Part of it, I'm sure, is that I have in fact grieved some losses from my past, and don't actually need to grieve them again.  But another part comes from resistance of some kind.  Or many kinds.

Harris' book gives some more insight into why we might have difficulty with the process of mourning. The quotes below are from her book. Anything not quoted is my commentary or synthesis of MANY ideas; including her ideas, things I've gleaned elsewhere, and my own experience. Again, I'm no therapist, so some of this is nothing more than my own understanding and opinion of how this all works. Anyway, a person might experience all, none, or some of the conditions below while they are attempting to heal.  And these conditions can get in between you and your full grief process.

Clinging to Symptoms 

The Issue: "The patient may be reluctant to give up symptoms such as nightmares and flashbacks because they have acquired important meanings. The symptoms may be symbolic means for keeping faith with the lost person, a substitute for mourning, or an expression of unresolved guilt."

What To Do: Recognize what it is in the symptoms that might actually be appealing to you, in spite of how horrible they are. Are you trying to punish yourself? Are you trying to remember someone or something through the symptoms? Are you looking at them as a protection or wall between yourself and other kinds of pain?

My Experience: This one is really hard for me. I didn't realize it, but for me the symptoms have become a reliable source of information. When I am in pain, I know something is wrong, and I can act. What am I without the pain? I have no model for a universe that is not defined by pain. I need to generate a new model, a universe defined by all sorts of sensations, where pain is just one kind. I need to tell myself it is okay to get information from good sensations, too.

Revenge Fantasy 

The Issue: The 'patient' may harbor a fantasy of "revenge on the perpetrator(s)" of their trauma, hoping to find some way to 'get even'.

What to Do: It is important to realize that getting even isn't actually possible, since even if one visits the exact same trauma on the perpetrator, it does not take ours away. And in the end, perpetuating the cycle of pain is damaging to ourselves, and simply lets the perpetrator win by keeping their maladapted ways of interacting with the world alive and well.

My Experience: I didn't have a lot of issues with wanting revenge on anyone who caused my trauma. I still have a few dark fantasies of doling out a couple of swift kicks in the shins, but this was never a big issue for me. I don't really have any desire to hurt anyone, not even these f#&%ers.

Miraculous Forgiveness 

The Issue: The traumatized person may have a 'forgiveness fantasy' where they believe they can "transcend their rage through a willful, defiant act of love."

What to Do: This one is difficult for people who believe that having bad feelings about someone, even someone who hurt them, is wrong. It seems like it would be ideal to simply and suddenly love the people who hurt us. In reality, this can be damaging, since it short-circuits our own natural coping processes. We are by no means called on to hate people, but we are called on to honor our own needs, and what was taken from us by the trauma. The rage in our hearts has to be dealt with gently and respectfully, not ignored. "A goal is to transform anger into righteous indignation." Not sure what that means, exactly.

My Experience: Well, I never really thought I was going to just forgive everyone outright. I thought I was supposed to, and felt bad that I couldn't conjure up any feelings of forgiveness. Maybe I never will. I've decided that forgiveness will happen when I'm ready, and that trying to force it isn't showing myself much courtesy.

Demanding Compensation 

The Issue: A "prolonged, fruitless struggle to wrest compensation from the perpetrator or from others." Note that phrase "or from others." One of the problems with looking for compensation is that, once it is clear it cannot be gained from the perpetrator, the 'patient' concsiously or unconsciously starts looking for it elsewhere. From family, the government, the medical establishment, or what have you. This need "may represent a defense against facing the full reality of what was lost."

What to Do: "Mourning is the only way to give due honor to loss; there is no fair compensation. The wish for compensation ties the survivor's fate to the perpetrator's and she is then held hostage." This seems more clear to me. I understand this theory that by constantly looking for compensation, a person makes it so they can't move on until something happens to or with those associated with inflicting the trauma.

My Experience: At first I didn't think I had a problem here. And now I see that in some ways, I do. My continued rage at my parents ties me to them. More importantly, it ties my healing to them. I want them to admit they blew it. I want them to see what they did wrong and apologize. And then I want them to get therapy. These things are not going to happen. Waiting on the actions of those who hurt me puts me at their mercy, still.  I need to find healing without this.

Trauma Memorial

The Issue: "The survivor may wonder how she can possibly give her due respect to the horror she has endured if she no longer devotes her life to remembrance and mourning." In this scenario, the person who was traumatized continues to live a life of mourning, remembering, anniversaries of trauma, and more. This isn't a case of focusing on specific symptoms, like flashbacks, but instead focusing on behaviors and actions. Shaping our lives to be a constant, living memorial stops us from completing the grief process, and instead stalls us there indefinitely.

What to Do: "She will never forget. But the time comes when the trauma no longer commands the central place in her life." We have to take that step back and realize, just like the desire for compensation, that there is no way we can create a memorial with our lives that actually evens up the score. At some point we need to allow that we've given due honor. Give ourselves permission to go live now. As life goes on, some trauma will resurface, and old issues will be revisited. But again, we need to allow ourselves to create new centers for our lives.

My Experience: In many ways, my trauma still defines me. I identify with it, and shape my life around it. My symptoms of PTSD, OCD, GAD and others are still so strong that dealing with them is a day to day struggle. I don't feel stuck in mourning. I think I might not be far enough along to get stuck there. Still, I can see how I could create a 'center' for myself that was all about trauma, instead of about actual life.

And there you go. A few ideas for what might be causing difficulty with moving completely through the grief process, and maybe a thought or two for how to address them. If any of it rings true for you (or not) drop a comment.

Your Hostess With Neuroses

Image credit/info: "Arcadia Child" D. Sharon Pruitt CC 2.0 


Amy said...

I'm interested in your comment that your rage at your parents ties you to them. I think that's true. Maybe not the rage as much as the desire for them to admit guilt and to change, which, as you say, ties your healing to them.

I suppose if the ability to heal exists within ourselves, then at some point we have to accept that the perpetrators of our abuse are never going to change, and we don't need them to. Maybe forgiveness is just letting go of the need for them to change.

The Blue Morpho said...

Hey Amy - That's a really interesting perspective on forgiveness. Something I can get my mind around. I certainly know they will not change, and I certainly don't want to be held back by that. Now I have to find a way to really internalize it.

Andy said...

I noted that some of the things you discuss are seen as things to emulate by major religions. "Miraculous forgiveness" as you call it, is seen in particular as a selfless act that can bring one closer to God (or Buddha etc.).

I can imagine that for some people in some situations, that might make healing that much more difficult since they feel that they should be able to just love and forgive (and that they are bad people if they are unable to do so).

The Blue Morpho said...

Hey Andy - Yeah, exactly. I certainly had the idea, long ago, that if I held any negative emotions towards someone, that made me a bad person. I don't feel that way anymore, yet still, there is an echo of a voice telling me that it must be a failure of faith on my part that I haven't just been blessed with the ability to ooze all over with love for the people who abused me.

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