“Trauma is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope or integrate the emotions involved with that experience.” (Wikipedia, summing up a definition I’ve seen in lots of other places.)
Grief is a process that we know about. Around matters of bereavement, people who grieve at the time of loss, cope. They may carry a lot of pain with them, they may never ‘get over it’ but they will be functional, they will find a way. Grief is an adjustment process, and while it may hurt like hell, it is the way forward. People who do not grieve at the time of bereavement will get a delayed grief experience. When it will happen, and how, and with what force is unpredictable, but it’s reliably much, much worse for delayed grief people than for people who can grieve in a timely way.
Grief is not just about death. It can be about all manner of losses and wounds, shocks and setbacks. However, what often happens when we hit a crisis, is that we get a lot of support to cope. Stiff upper lip. Soldier on. Push through. The smaller the crisis, the more pressure there is not to make a fuss about it. How many of us have working lives that are basically running low level crises? Or family lives of that shape? Or financial problems that are just small, constant nightmares. And how many of us hit bigger things and find there’s no room to do anything but keep going?
I spent years with this one, when there was always something else more important than how I was feeling. Running from one crisis to another – most of them not of my making, fire fighting, coping, keeping going, doing all the important things. The one important thing I did not do during those years, was grieve for my losses, my wounds. I spent a lot of time trying to be brave for everyone else, to keep a good face on it. I was put under pressure to be jolly and co-operative, for the good of others, at times when that was unbearable. So I smiled, and bore it as best I could.
When grief is suppressed and undealt with, there is no room to integrate the experience. There’s no time to absorb and process, to make sense of what’s happened. There’s no room to let go and put it properly behind you.
The result is that it comes out sideways, unexpectedly. There aren’t always obvious triggers, except that its more likely to happen when you feel calmer, safer, more able to accommodate it. Why there is the sudden drowning in grief may be impossible to explain, and certainly if it hits you years after the event, its much harder to get the emotional support that’s more readily available to people who have recently been hit by a thing.
When we think about trauma, we tend to think about big, dramatic events. However, the accumulation of lots of smaller, unprocessed losses also takes a toll, but leaves a person with nothing they can obviously point at.
It’s important not to rush people through grief. If you can make any space at all to deal with things as they come up, you will do better. I know it seems like helping to tell someone to keep going, chin up, smile, don’t let the bastards grind you down, but keeping going in the short term can mean really not keeping going in the long term, and its worth looking at the bigger picture.