“My husband died in long-term care two years ago, and I just can’t move on from what he endured.”
“It’s good to know someone else is aware of the so-called ‘care’ these people receive,” she wrote, explaining that her husband passed away two years ago while in LTC. She alluded to repeated crises and close calls in the days and months leading up to his death.
Grief has no expiry date
The words in her letter were heavy, and reminded me of every person I have ever met who has suffered loss, experienced a life-threatening illness, or witnessed something terrible — there was that familiar intense tone of a person who is broken, wounded and grasping for some sense of solid ground. “L” was reaching out because even though it had been two years since she lost her husband, she still wanted to talk about it. The people around her? Well, not so much.
“The people I know think I should just move on,” she wrote. “But I feel exactly the opposite.”
It can be difficult to listen to someone’s trauma, no doubt. Who wants the sunshine and rainbows of their life darkened by a friend or family member who just can’t seem to move on? And then are those who just don’t have the patience for it — those who believe that grief has a time limit: two months after the funeral, sure, be sad; but if you’re still crying in your coffee at six months, well, it’s time to pull up your socks, grow a pair and move on.
The thing is, talking about trauma is key to recovery, according to some experts. For many of us, sharing what causes us pain is a form of natural healing that can relieve distress and help us to move forward. In fact, not having the opportunity to unpack negative feelings can have devastating consequences, leading to post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues.
Years ago, I met a woman in her thirties who had been living with a serious cancer for four years. She was married, with three teenage children, a close extended family and lots of friends — yet no one knew she had cancer. She said she kept the news to herself because she thought they would worry, or treat her differently or think she was weak. But keeping the scary diagnosis, stress and fear to herself came with a cost — by the time she attended one of our patient meetings, she was taking medication for anxiety and depression and whenever she talked about living with cancer, she could barely get her words out without crying.
Ignoring trauma is sort of like leaving a plastic container on a hot burner (which I tend to do with regularity). At first it melts, it’s very messy and it smells unpleasant. But if you don’t scrape the melted plastic off while it’s warm, it cools to an unsightly, impossible-to-budge mound of hard goo that’s always there — and every time that burner heats up again, the nostril-stinging scent is a reminder that the mess is still there.
“L” was looking for advice on how to tidy her “mess” when those around her weren’t supporting her clean-up efforts. Since her friends and family refused to listen, she was thinking of putting it down on paper.
“If telling my story could possibly help someone in some small way, then maybe I could begin my healing,” was the sentence that ended her email.
According to clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, “sometimes having your pen do the talking is the most powerful way to harness your voice” when you are trying to make sense of trauma. It’s the getting-it-out that helps heal. And if you are more into talking, she says that family, friends and mental health professionals can be helpful, but it’s the people who share your experiences that can offer soul-rebuilding validation — the power of the ‘I-have-been-there-too.’ Think support groups and advocacy organizations.
“Whether it’s validation, understanding, being seen, or empathy, talking with someone (or many someones) who gets it rids survivors of feelings of isolation,” says Hendriksen.
Lessons from the work we do to process pain
And as hard as it is to go through difficult times, there are lessons that come from the work we do to process the pain, she adds, such as reminders to appreciate life, or the realization that we are strong and resilient. Sometimes it sets us on a path to make change so that someone else doesn’t have to experience what we did.
Of course, that’s not to say that everyone should put their trauma out in the world in the hopes of feeling better. Hendriksen cautions that in some cases, talking about experiences that are causing pain and distress might have no impact — or even make PSTD worse — which would be a sign to enlist the help and support of a professional.
“L” decided that she needs to share what’s going on in her head and her heart — despite what her friends say. She’s going forward with her book.
In fact, she has already started writing — and hopefully, healing.