When I was in college, my great-grandmother died. She had lived a long life with many things to be proud of so, when she went, we were incredibly sad but it also felt like her time. I had a friend at that time tell me that grieving isn’t linear. That I didn’t need to push to be able to answer “Doing okay” when someone asked how I was. That I could be devastated and joyful simultaneously, because grief couldn’t stamp out the beauty entirely, but it also didn’t leave before it was ready.
I clung to that realization in the weeks that followed. And again when my Grandfather died the next year. And again when school shootings kept happening to people I knew. And again when students I taught passed away from diseases they never should have had to face.
I struggled, however, to apply it to trauma. I wrote in November about the fact that I was sexually assaulted. It was the first time I had named a lot of things out loud, and called them for what they were, but I also buried a lot of my pain in an attempt to make it palatable. Because it had been long enough that I should have been better. I shouldn’t still get sweaty palms at the thought of being any level of vulnerable around a man who was interested in women. I shouldn’t still be so angry. I shouldn’t lose sleep at the thought of running in to him again, I shouldn’t have intense reactions of fear/disgust when I see his picture on a dating app or have a panic attack when I discover that I’m house sitting at a house a few blocks from where he lived.
I managed to forget that grief isn’t linear.
I was in a really lovely relationship for part of this last year where I emotionally connected with someone again for the first time since all of it happened. And every small accomplishment felt like I had climbed Mount Everest, because there were days where I still wanted to pull inside of myself and never date again. I had become inordinately good at stacking the deck to ensure that I was never truly vulnerable – even though logically I knew that he wouldn’t hurt me in the way that I had been hurt before, I needed to figure out how to trust my gut again. I needed to figure out how to trust men that were romantically interested in me again, certainly, but that was small potatoes compared to feeling like I couldn’t trust my instinct about people.
I was so hard on myself that I wasn’t better yet, wasn’t who I wanted to be as a girlfriend, wasn’t able to logically reason my way out of panic attacks and feelings of worthlessness. How exactly does one start that conversation with another person? You can’t just open with, “Hello there! I want you to still want to date me, but I have baggage that I’m working through that is substantial. Sometimes that work and that baggage will spill out on to you, and while I am also terrified of being a burden, I don’t see a way around it here.”
I forgot that the grief your body remembers, even when your mind has decided it would rather forget, does not come with instructions. There is no straight path to healing. No formula you can follow to create a perfect line out of the pain and trauma.
I was fortunate that the person I was having that conversation with was incredibly kind and did not once begrudge me needing distance or slowing to a stop where I had been fine moments before – but there was also so, so much work on my end to wade through the abyss in an attempt to name it. To manage my reactions, to be brave enough to be honest when I wanted to pretend I was fine, to not run away and kill it because I was overwhelmed at how fresh everything felt. To be quick with grace because grief isn’t linear.
Do you see the trend here yet?
Since I have begun to speak about this, I’ve been amazed at the number of people who are so kind. There are, of course, people who are made incredibly uncomfortable and respond with party line answers that mean that I cry in my car on the way home, but overwhelmingly, people are kind. But I’ve also met so, so, so many women (and a few men) who have gotten the misty look in their eye and conveyed, sometimes without words, that they know all too well what I’m working through.
When I have been able to, I’ve wrapped them up in a hug and whispered what probably ended up being nonsensical reminders of worth, because dealing with this kind of trauma is unbelievably isolating. It’s not palatable for people who don’t have the capacity to make room for your pain. It’s not palatable for people who were fine with you talking about it the first time, but also admonish you to not “continue to air out your dirty laundry”. Trauma is not a one-and-done kind of situation, folks.
And though it doesn’t ease the many facets of life after the traumatic event, often we need to remember/be reminded that it’s okay that our grief hasn’t abated yet. It’s perfectly normal to put ourselves back together slightly different than (or significantly different) we were before. It’s unbelievably frustrating that we don’t have a sequence of events (short of lobotomy) that allows us to forget and go back to being relatively normal, unaffected members of society. But there is no formula. No secret three-step process or miracle cure.
Rather, there is the realization that life from here on out may get to be planned or it may be just one step at a time. That there will be times where you need to go off into the garden yourself to cry, pray and process, and times where the only way through is letting yourself need every ounce of your support system. That there will be days where you are incredibly intentional about making choices that invest in yourself, when you can manage, and days where it’s all you can do to accept grace. That there will be weeks, months or years of needing therapists who see you, validate what you are experiencing and gently coach you back to your feet to start taking those one-step-at-a-time steps again.
That there will also be relapse. God, so much relapse. Where you’ve gone for weeks feeling almost whole again, only to be tripped up by something you didn’t see coming and end up in a heap on the floor.
It’s not pleasant, it’s not fair, it’s not deserved – but it is part of grief. And while you may find yourself spending far more days angry than you are sad, processing trauma is full of dealing with grief. Grief for who you were. Grief for the parts of you that died. Grief for the ignorance you didn’t realize you had to take for granted.
There is no one way to do this process, this decision to survive and keep moving, exactly right. There is so much grace here. For wherever you are here. For wherever I am. While there is no shame in the fact that this is, and will likely always be, a part of my story, I am so comforted in the knowing that it’s not the strongest part. That this grief, even on days when it is screaming at the top of its lungs, can’t drown out the beauty and joy entirely. It can feel like it is coming painfully close – but hope and life abound. In the cracks, in the shadows, in the unlikeliest of places, it refuses to be stamped out completely.
“My friend, grieving isn’t linear. You don’t need to push to be able to answer ‘Doing okay’ when someone asks how you are, when it’s not the truth. You can be devastated and joyful in this space, simultaneously. Grief can’t stamp out the beauty around you entirely, it’s not strong enough. But it also won’t leave before it’s ready. You are not alone here, even when you can’t bring yourself to physically be here. Be where you are, and know that’s okay for today.”