By definition, a trauma wreaks havoc with a body, a mind or a system. Might the devastation be less if the person who had the experience were accompanied? One surprising way to think about trauma is not by measuring the magnitude of the horrific event, but rather by measuring the extent to which the person who experiences the tragedy is left alone with it. If we approach trauma from this point of view, then its after-effects can be evidence that a part of us is stuck in terrible, isolated moments in time.
A personal story will help explain how trauma is often an eternally suspended single moment of horror, terror, pain and/or rage. Before starting his healing work, a man who had been alone with his uncle as he died, when the man was only a boy of 11 , described himself as being totally alone and unsupported by his family. He lived with this aloneness as an ongoing state of being, believing the world to be a cold and empty place. Once he reconnected with his 11-year-old self with resonance and care, following the body sensations of frozen horror, bewilderment and grief, and guessing needs for acknowledgment, support and understanding, he started to remember the evenings he spent grieving with his father after the funeral was over for this beloved uncle and brother. His perception of how the world was began to gently change.
Over and over again, when a traumatized person speaks about hard events in their life and then does the work of moving through time with resonance, and following body sensations to offer empathy, then memories change and become more complete, and complex, even occasionally transforming the tone of a lifetime.
Empathy changes our perception of life as colored by everyday trauma, too. The discussion in the prison this week was about “accepting our time.” The women in the class spoke about the transition to a kind of grace that happened for them once they fully accepted and surrendered to being behind bars. They spoke about the difficulty of being separated from their children and families in particular as a stumbling block to acceptance. Some of them grieved and fought for years before they came to radical acceptance of what was. As they spoke about their lives in prison, I reflected that we all do better once we “accept our time.”
For me, accepting my son’s death this spring and all the struggles that preceded it are part of “my time.” Accepting my mistakes, my moments of obliviousness that have hurt people I love, accepting the marks of my childhood, and the ways that I am privileged and the ways that I am handicapped, all of the work of self-acceptance is what is set for me. I can’t escape “my time” any more than the women in prison are able escape theirs.