Friday, July 29, 2016

Grief vs. Trauma

I grieved when my mother was diagnosed with cancer and I knew I would grieve when she died. I have grieved for the last three years. Grief is a long, slow journey. My grief work now is very different from what it was at this time three years ago or even a year ago. I have lived three years without my mother's physical presence. I have almost finished graduate school. I have made new friends, I have dated, I have traveled, I have suffered more losses since her passing. And while I of course believe that my mom will always be with me--that does not take away the pain of not having her physically here. But things are different now. The pain isn't so fresh. The feeling of abandonment isn't so strong. I usually describe the loss of my mother as if feeling that gravity no longer exists. I was recently talking to a friend and she asked if that had changed, three years later. I said, it's like I'm on one of the smaller planets/moons in the solar system--so there's some gravity, but it's not the same kind of pull like there is on Earth. In other words, I still feel like I'm floating around, but just not as much.

I am recently realizing that it is not just grief that I have been dealing with since my mom died--I still have a lot of trauma with me from watching her slowly die as the cancer took over her body.

Recently, I had a very frank conversation with a good friend about their mother's cancer and imminent passing. They wanted to know what it has been like for me. And one thing they said really struck me--that when their mom dies, they want to just feel relief.

And I told them--I think that's exactly what my first feeling was. Relief that it was over. That my mom was no longer in excruciating pain. That my family and I no longer had to live in the purgatory between life and death. That, despite how painful the rebuilding would be, we would now be able to continue with our lives. The grief only came later. And processing the trauma, even later.

For the first year after she died, when I would visit my grandparents and dad in Salado in the house where my mother died, I always had nightmares. Every time I was there, as I slept, I was transported to the most difficult days of my mom's illness, including the hospital visits, the chemo treatments, the resulting illnesses, the weakness in her body, the fear in her eyes. I couldn't be in that house and not think about all the painful memories.

When we went to the Christmas Eve service at church in 2013, I couldn't sing the hymns. All I could think about was sitting vigil by my mother's death bed, singing my way through the hymn book. The first time I went through, I skipped the Christmas songs (it was July and I have always had strong feelings about Christmas music only being played between Thanksgiving and Epiphany Day). But the next time I went through and all subsequent times, I sang the Christmas songs too. I had realized it would be the last time she would ever hear them because while the most optimistic estimate was that she had a couple more months, I could feel it would be much sooner and either way, she would not make it to Christmas. So at that Christmas Eve service, I just sobbed.

And then my maternal grandfather was on his death bed, less than a year after his eldest daughter died. When we went to say goodbye to him for the last time, I just stood paralyzed in the corner sobbing while my dad prayed and spoke to him. The scene was too familiar. I couldn't be present for my grandfather in those last hours of his life because I was so overwhelmed by the memories of my mother in that same state.

But earlier this year, seeing my paternal grandmother on her death bed didn't cause the same reaction. I was able to be present as I was present during my mom's last days (I think that's one reason I didn't realize how traumatizing the experience actually was--because I was able to be present with her during those last days). In fact, I engaged in the same practices--singing hymns and folding paper cranes.

And just a month and a half later, my client I had been working with as a senior care companion for nine months transitioned into hospice care. My last appointment with her was four days before she died. She did not open her eyes the entire time I was there. She had always loved music and I had sung to her before, so I did the same thing I had done for my mother and grandmother--sang hymns as Ms. E slowly faded away. I was reminded of my mom and grandparents but it wasn't incapacitating. I could be present.

I have been reading a book called Trauma Stewardship (which everyone should read). It has been eye-opening to me. Putting feelings and thoughts I didn't consciously realize I had into plain words. Confronting contributors to my mental health difficulties. Through processing trauma.

I have had a very hard time being present in the last few years. And I'm only realizing recently that it might have something to do with my trauma that I have avoided dealing with in many ways and not just witnessing the trauma of others. So I'm taking the guidance from this book to heart and am hoping to become a better trauma steward from now on.

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