Mourning and Trauma
After any tragic event (and even some not-so-tragic-but-still-sad events) there are natural rhythms to mourning and melancholia. Mourning is perhaps one of the most powerful processes a human goes through, and we experience it more often than we acknowledge. Often we associate mourning only with death, as in going to a funeral to mourn a loved one. This may be part of your forgiveness process explicitly (if someone has died), and there are other forms of mourning: I can mourn the loss of a friendship; I can mourn the loss of a certain vision of my future, for example, if I didn’t get into the college I wanted, I might mourn my dreams for the future; I can mourn the loss of a specific time-period, for example, graduating high-school might be exciting, and I might also simultaneously mourn the loss of being a senior, of going to a certain school, of the ‘easy and fun’ times of being young. Mourning can surprise us as well, we might discover ourselves mourning things we would normally consider trivial, i.e., losing a pencil, a pair of glasses or a remote control. We may surprise ourselves here as we realize that we were particularly attached to that object. Recognizing and honoring these moments, and understanding how these emotional states affect the forgiveness process is key to our growth.
Trauma may also be affecting our ability to move forward with forgiveness. With trauma we usually imagine the event on repeat. This repetition cements certain stories in ourselves, and makes our ability to recognize our choice in the event particularly difficult. It may even be that we had no agency (choice) in the event itself (and that was the traumatic part), and we have to look to the aftermath of the event to find our choices (how I chose to go forward; how I chose to remember the event; how I chose/choose to engage with those that were a part of the event).
Father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud famously said that there is no human without trauma. He wasn’t being pessimistic, he was observing that all of us have experienced some form of trauma and, like emotions, this is neither good nor bad: it is something that happens. Moving to this uncharged view of a traumatic moment can take days or decades depending on the event. In fact, we might never feel a sense of balance around our trauma. However, time and distance from the original event will help us to negotiate the stories that we (often painfully) replay when we remember that situation. There are literally thousands of books written on trauma, and an entire field devoted to its examination called Trauma Studies.
What this Path of Forgiveness can offer is that many researchers believe that trauma is an autonomic attempt by our brain and body to make sense of an event. We repeat the event over and over in an attempt to restore our control, our choice, our agency or our power in the event. Ironically, trauma can have us clutching at something harder and harder in order to try to let it go. While by no means a road to ‘curing’ trauma, sitting back and allowing the event to ‘simply be’ is often a route to balance. When your mind and body ask you to revisit the painful moment, feel into the pain, rather than resisting. In this process of feeling into the pain of the trauma, we stop grasping at the event, we stop attempting to impose our conscious will on a past event, and instead we start to let it ‘just be’. This is akin to the process of forgiveness; we say “in that moment, I chose to be terrified” and “in that moment, I chose to be sad beyond measure.” We allow ourselves to relive that sadness, to honor that choice, and to return to the present. This is the start of a longer process often misunderstood as the process of ‘letting go’… we never really let-go of a trauma, it stays with us. What we let-go of is our fury, our sadness, our rage, or desire that the event should not have happened, or that I should have done something differently. We let go of regret.
When the trauma runs deeply, seeking out a trusted mentor and/or a person trained in supporting cases of trauma can help us feel into the moment. With traumas that are powerful, yet less devastating, we will likely be able to start honoring and feeling into the moment on our own… for example, with the potential trauma of leaving home for the first time; or of being dumped by a lover. In all cases, finding a trusted mentor will help to guide you through this process.
In feeling into our trauma, mourning and melancholia we again need to honor that these psychosomatic experiences add nuances to the process of forgiveness, and ask us to take more time and offer more love and understanding to ourselves. Again, these are all normal human responses to the types of scenarios that invite forgiveness; honoring your humanity, and the honesty of these states of being, will allow you to meet them in their fullness and to hear what your mind and body are asking you to learn about the moment. Wait. Pause. Breathe. Feel them, and make choices only once you’ve taken time to find balance around these states.
Trauma Studies as a branch of sociological, historical and literary theory arose as an attempt of Jewish scholars to grapple with the aftermath of the Holocaust. Nowadays, the term ‘Trauma Studies’ categorizes a vast expanse of scholars working on the concept of trauma in its many incarnations. Particularly relevant in recent years is the consideration of the intersections between gender, sexuality and trauma, as well as contemporary ‘cultural’ traumas like 9/11.
The below books offer a rough outline of the contemporary landscape of literary and gender-based trauma studies. Importantly, the codification of these various thinkers into a singular coherent field is not necessarily possible. Many of the writers are at odds with each other’s understandings of trauma. Similarly, many of the Jewish understandings of trauma have been adapted into contemporary programs grouped under the title of Holocaust Studies or more broadly Genocide Studies. Examples of this exploration of cultural trauma can be readily found in the journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies published by Oxford Studies.
The below texts grapple with trauma as a concept: what is it? How do we know it when we see it? Where are there examples of it? Is it always personal, or can it be cultural? Is it necessary for certain identities (i.e., is part of being Jewish always experiencing the trauma of the Holocaust; is part of being African American always experiencing the trauma of slavery?). The books tend to be quite ‘theoretical’ because of this, those most base their explorations on specific cultural ‘artifacts’ meaning books, memorials, historical documents, or films. ¹
Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Ed. Cathy Caruth. (1995)
This collection of essays focuses on the writing/storying of a traumatic event. To this extent, the authors utilize literary analysis in order to inform psychological and psychoanalytic practices with regards to trauma. George Bataille and Shoshana Felman are particularly important thinkers in literary psychoanalysis, especially with regards to memory and mourning. They both set the tone for much research that follows after their essays and books.
Pillar of Salt: Gender, Memory, and the Perils of Looking Back. Janice Haaken. (2000)
A feminist analysis of trauma through the lens of gender and memory again. The titular reference is to the biblical story in which Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt as a punishment for looking back on the destruction of the city of Sodom. After exploring this destructive/punative remembering, Haaken proposes a process of restorying called ‘transformative remembering’.
New Version of Victims: Feminists Struggle with the Concept. Ed. Sharon Lamb. (1999)
Victimhood is a central concept for much of feminist trauma studies. These essays negotiate the meaning of the word ‘victim’ in both literary and legal contexts, with special attention paid to the gendering of victimhood.
Loss: The Politics of Mourning. Ed. David L. Eng. (2002)
Another important collection of essays, this time exploring profound cultural moments of loss and trauma, like the AIDS epidemic or the Vietnam War. In recent years, David Eng has become a profound figure in the field of Postcolonial Studies, meaning the exploration of depictions of race and minority in the contemporary world. He is also a prominent Queer Theorist, and so approaches race at the intersection of sexuality, gender and culture.
An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Anne Cvetkovich. (2003)
Ann Cvetkovich explores trauma through an archive of lesbian artifacts and interviews with lesbians. She is particularly “interested in how these lesbian sites give rise to different ways of thinking about trauma and in particular to a sense of trauma as connected to the textures of everyday experience” (3-4). For Cvetkovich, trauma isn’t a single one-time event (such as September 11), but rather part of lived experience. Additionally, part of her goal is to understand trauma as something that can be foundational for public cultures, or “for creating counterpublic spheres rather than evacuating them” (15). Rather than psychologizing or medicalizing trauma, Cvetkovich sees trauma “as a social and cultural discourse that emerges in response to the demands of grappling with the psychic consequences of historical events” (18). Part of this includes, importantly, understanding trauma as not solely a private issue, but rather something that is part of public culture (here, queering the public/private distinction) (32).
More ‘practical’ tools for negotiating trauma can be found at the following websites. Note, however, that unlike the above texts, these websites regard trauma as something quite knowable and concrete. They are operating from a specific definition of trauma that may, or may not, accord with your particular trauma.
American Psychological Association
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – Trauma Focused
The Cultural Kool-Aid on Regret:
One of the noblest and best things we can do is to live a life without regret.
“Things without all remedy should be without regard; what’s done is done.” – Lady Macbeth telling her husband to not regret murdering people. Not being able to feel regret is one of the diagnostic qualities of sociopaths. The easiest way to never regret anything is to lobotomize yourself.
What is Regret?
Regret is simply the emotion we experience when we believe that we could be better or happier in the present if we had chosen differently in the past.
To have regret we need:
1) Agency – our ability to make choices and to understand the difference between those choices.
2) Imagination – our ability to go back to the past and build a story on what ‘could have been’ from that point up until our present had we made a different decision.
The more we have of both, the more poignantly we will feel regret. And regret feels awful.
Note that regret and guilt are separate entities. Guilt is looking back to the past with a should in our hearts (“I should have chose differently”). Regret is looking back and imagining what the present could have been like with a different choice in our past.
Regret feels awful in four distinctive and predictable ways:
1) Denial – “Make it go away.” Primitive emotional response. We’re not trying to solve or understand the problem; we’re just trying to make it disappear
2) Disbelief – “What was I thinking?” or “How could I have done that?”
3) Self-Punishment – “I could KICK myself!” or “How could I have been so STUPID!”
4) Perseverate– To think endlessly on a specific topic. We run through the first three components over and over again.
Note: Like ‘should’ – regret can have an ‘oops’ element to it, which may not have ‘negative’ emotions attached to it. This is a critical and higher form of regret.
Control + Z Culture:
We are an undo culture. We, culturally, lack the ability to sit well with the inability to undo a particular choice or moment in the past. We feel agency and happiness only when we’re able to undo something…. when something becomes a permanent moment in our history, we move into this regret cycle. It’s time to choose a different orientation to regret besides self-loathing and/or forgetting.
How to Find Balance with Regret:
There are three things that help us make peace with regret:
1) Take peace in its universality. We are all in this together. Regret is everywhere, with everyone.
2) Laugh at Yourself. It can feel glib or harsh in the face of real difficult moments. However, laughter helps to cope with the pain of the regretted moment and sends a current between that moment’s devastation and our joy. We recognize that pain, however horrendous, is on the same spectrum of emotions as joy and laughter. To feel them is to be human [think Tonglen (Appendix C)]
3) The Passage of Time. Distance from the event helps us to gain perspective on the event; we can see the outcomes of choices we did make, and remind ourselves of the limitations of those choices. We are not endeavoring here to feel good about our regret, but rather, to remember that feeling regret with pain is a powerful moment in our own understanding of who we would like to be, and where we would like to go. Regret reminds us that our choices, and our ideal self, are not yet aligned… and that this is not something to be hated, but a piece of information to use in our growth path. We do not forget, nor do we self-hate, we recognize and honor the pain that resulted from the choice that we now regret.
If we are invested in the world; in outcomes, in people, in places… then we will feel regret.
Regret doesn’t remind us that we did ‘badly’, it lets us know that we can do better.
Anger in a Page
Anger can be a quick and easy way to get what we want when we want it.
Think on this:
Imagine that you live in a house you share with roommates. You show up to the laundry room to find that your clothing has been taken out of the washing machine and placed, soaking wet, on top of the dryer. Someone else’s clothing is in the dryer. You find out that it’s Susan’s laundry. You charge over to Susan, red with anger, and yell “If you EVER jump the line in the laundry room again, or put my clothes wet on top of the dryer, you are NOT gonna like what happens.” Susan is pale with fright. That’s the last time she’ll do that! You storm off feeling pretty damn righteous about the whole thing.
As a society (and as individuals) we strive for nonviolent forms of communication, and to ways of interaction that increase our personal responsibility and power. We also celebrate the gamut of human emotions; and we understand ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ emotions to be indicators of different internal states. So how does anger fit into all this?
One possible way is through the belief of Cognitive Behavioral Theory which suggests that anger is a “secondary emotion.” This means that anger is an interpretation of, or layer over, another more primary emotion.When we feel angry, we’re often combining a primary emotion (like sadness, loss, hurt, pain, fear) with a ‘should’ (applied to ourselves or others). In the above example, we could say that you were sad because your need for fairness was going unmet, and that Susan should have met your need for fairness with her actions, so you’re angry at her.
So if a primary emotion + a ‘should’ = anger (a secondary emotion), then how can I choose to be less angry?
The easiest way is to let go of the ‘should’ in the statement; the process for letting go of ‘shoulds’ on ourselves and others is the very process of forgiveness outlined in this manual.
Why Choose Differently?
Perhaps more important than the how question is the question: why might I choose to be less angry?
Anger as an emotion limits our ability to choose. It disguises or clouds our primary emotion, and thus potentially interferes with our ways of connecting with ourselves and our other potential choices in the moment. While anger culturally might look like power (the power of violence) it actually robs us of our power (our power to choose / decide).
Also, like most habituated responses, anger can quickly become habitual because it works well. Similarly, punishment/reward works well and quickly. But these methods come with potentially deeply destructive liabilities.
In the case of anger in the laundry room above, we would teach Susan that we are an angry person, and that we will not choose to meet her actions with love, empathy and understanding. We’d invited her into a place of fear, sadness and potentially hurt when she’s around us. Likely, Susan will make a choice to avoid us in order to meet her own needs for safety, fun and ease. All, or many, of these liabilities can be avoided when we regard anger as a secondary emotion, let go of our ‘should’ and choose a different response.
- While these theorists hypothesize the importance of trauma to certain cultural formations, we can also keep in mind that in our everyday lives, we can sometimes transform trauma into a precious object that we’re unhealthily attached to. In this type of analysis-paralysis, we refuse to acknowledge the possibility of trauma being no longer present in our lives, because we have become obsessed/attached to that trauma as somehow necessary to our existence. There is a delicate line here between healthily saying that trauma is normal (meaning that everyone at some stage will experience it) and unhealthily saying that it is necessary (meaning that we all must hold-on to it).