Remembrance--holding and healing through stories

Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.
— Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried

Remembrance is the holding of a story: and the eventual telling of a story. When people think about healing from trauma they most often think of people telling their story: the story of what happened to them. But the story of trauma is just not that simple. Every trauma is different yet shares one thing: the memories are fragmented pieces that must be reassembled in order to become the story that resembles the experience. The memories are nearly a million poppies that make sense only when they come together in one place.

Last year in London for Remembrance Day they amassed 888,246 ceramic poppies to represent the soldiers who died in World War I.  It was a staggering sight of red surrounding the entire Tower of London. You could not take in the entire installation in one view—thousands and thousands of poppies. It was beautiful which kept you looking. And devastating which helped you understand what you were really being asked to understand. The story of what a nation endured by looking at all 888,246 poppies and then imagining all of the losses for each family that went with each poppy, and and all of the communities. 

Trauma is so hard to absorb. Not just for what we would consider psychological reasons but because our physiology is designed to protect us. Our defenses against being overwhelmed and incapacitated help us not take in trauma as it is happening. There are a number of things that happen with the physiology of our brains that keep us from taking in the whole story. Trauma keeps our brains from encoding or storing the information in the way it typically takes in information. Stress activates our fear or emotional memory so that the memory gets stored as a memory that you know but don’t know how you know--they call this a procedural memory (like riding a bike or tying your shoes).

To make this even more likely, the high levels of stress hormones from trauma inhibit the neural networks of the hippocampus-cortex circuit —effectively taking our memory for knowledge “off-line” which means that the details of the memory, the story of the memory and the context of the memory are not properly “written down.”  The memory is there, your brain recorded the information, but the information was stored without a connection to context and often, time. Think of it as memory scattered. A red poppy here and a red poppy there.

Even more striking is the loss of language during and after trauma. During trauma, and even recalling trauma, the language center of the brain has reduced blood flow which inhibits the capacity for language. This inhibition impairs encoding the event into language and can impair the retrieval of memory into language.⁠ When we say that trauma is ‘unspeakable’ or that language fails us—it’s not just a metaphor: the language centers in our brain keep us from the story.

So we need patience, we need time and we need repetition to tell our stories. The stories that individuals need to tell. The stories that groups need to tell. The stories that countries need to tell. There is no one single war story. There is no single telling of any trauma. We need metaphors. We need art. We need 888,246 ceramic poppies and we also need the pictures and letters and crosses tied to the fence so that the stories can come together, the scale of the magnitude and the small love note for a country and for ourselves. 

Research: Trauma and Memory

1. Release of norepinephrine heightens activation of amygdala and intensifies memories of trauma. McGaugh, J. (1990). Significance and Remembrance: The role of neuromodulatory systems. Psychological Science, 1, 15-25.

2. Cozolino, L. (2002). The nueroscience of psychotherapy: Building and rebuilding the human brain. NY: WW Norton.

3. Rauch, s., van der Kolk, B., Fisler, R., Alpert, N., Orr, S., Savage, C., Fischman, A., Jenike, M., & Pitman, R. (1996). A symptom provocation study of posttraumatic stress disorder using positron emmission tomography and script driven imagery. Archives of general psychiatry, 53, 380-387.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2014