Many people face a traumatic event in adult life. Be it a serious car accident, combat, rape, a natural disaster or the loss of a child, people are often confronted with a horrific event that threatens death or serious injury to themselves or someone else, or involves the traumatic loss of a friend or loved one.
While such trauma is in itself physically and emotionally assaultive, trauma theorist Robert Stolorow proposes that beyond the actual event, it is the emotions suffered after the event that become the unbearable emotional pain of trauma.
- Difficult to articulate and unrecognized by many, the emotional aftermath of adult trauma often goes unvalidated and unhealed.
- Drawing upon his own traumatic loss of a young wife, Stolorow reports that in the unreal time that stretches slowly after a trauma, there is an “excruciating sense” of being outside normal life, alone with feelings that no one else can understand.
Stolorow’s contribution to the field is his articulation of these feelings in a way that becomes an invaluable resource for validation.
Reflecting this, military psychiatrist, Russell Carr, in his innovative development of “Short Term Intersubjective Therapy for Combat Vets,” reports that just posing Stolorow’s descriptions of possible post-traumatic experiences to veterans facilitated a beginning connection, a sense that “someone understands-someone gets it.”
The validation of the emotions experienced in the aftermath of adult trauma is important and applicable to any adult who has faced an unspeakable event. They are conceptualized in the following way:
The Confrontation of Our Necessary Denial
- In order to live without excessive anxiety, we all maintain a necessary denial that bad things won’t happen. Without such denial we might be too frightened to put our children on school buses or leave our homes.
- Trauma confronts this denial. As Stolorow suggests, it shatters the “the absolutisms” that we are safe, that our children are safe, that life is good and predictable. Those who have suffered have found that life is dangerous, unpredictable and sometimes deadly.
As one mother said, “Why shouldn’t I be terrified of my daughter’s going away to school? If her father can be killed by a plane crashing through the 90th floor of the World Trade Center – anything can happen.”
With time and validation many who have suffered still feel that life was and can be dangerous but… it can also be good, healing and possible.
Loss of Temporality
Stolorow underscores that in the aftermath of trauma, we lose the seamless experience of past, present and future. There is the sense of being entrapped in the traumatic moment. The past becomes meaningless; the future seems impossible.
Our life collapsed into the day we lost our son – everything was before or after Jimmy died.
Lifting the shame of “being stuck in time” by feeling understood starts to open time again. In small steps memories begin to foster coping and future dreams become memorials – not reasons to forget.
Loss of One’s Sense of Being
In his description of the unconscious effects of trauma, Stolorow captures the feeling of losing “one’s sense of being.” He reminds us that without being able to put words to the impact of trauma, we lose the attunement of others and the sense of “ being-in-the-world.” The need is for a relational home – someone to get it – to help us know we are not alone.
A grieving firefighter who sat with arms crossed listening in a group changed the expression on his face as he said to another member, “That’s it – you said what I feel – what can we do?”
Face to Face with Death
Adult trauma too often brings us face to face with death in a way that we cannot shake. Stolorow describes that this “being toward death” can create significant anxiety or numbness, often with a withdrawal from what was once important – work, goals, future plans.
The integration of the traumatic confrontation with mortality comes with connection to others. It is in the vitality of our relationships with others who have suffered and those whom we love that we find each day of life worth living.
If there are words for what we suffer, we move from helplessness to understanding.
If others concur with these words and resonate with their meaning, we are no longer alone.
Soldier photo available from Shutterstock