Refuge is the end of the trauma—a place where the active part of trauma is over. But it is not the end. It is a beginning. Refuge is the beginning of healing. It is a place where the possibility of healing exists.
Refuge is the minimal requisite environment for healing, but it is not the healing itself. Refuge is a place where you can rest. Often physically, but most importantly, emotionally. It isn’t the rest itself. I make this distinction because healing and mending can take a lot of work. A place of safety and refuge allow you to do this, but they are not sufficient in and of themselves. Healing isn’t just being away from trauma or grief. Healing is the work of mending, repair, grieving. And once you have sufficiently healed there is the possibility of resurgence of growth—a place I would call sanctuary. In refuge you mend, in sanctuary you grow.
No one wants to be a refugee, but I believe that anyone who has lived through trauma or severe grief is a refugee--especially if you choose to heal. Trauma and traumatic grief mean that you are cast out of a land of innocence. Not just a world where you would believe that everything is okay—or that the world is just. It’s bigger than that—because trauma and severe loss mean that you lose an innocence of self—an innocence of believing that in a difficult situation you would rise to the occasion—you would do the right thing, not the human thing. You know that you have done whatever you needed to do to survive and you know what it means to feel truly helpless. You have seen yourself at your worst in a world that couldn’t help you at that moment: and you can’t ever go back. And never being able to go back is the working definition of refugee.
And the truth is, there is no going back. For those who had peace and safety before the trauma or loss, you long for the world as it was, and for yourself as you were. But you can’t unknow what you know, and you can’t unfeel what you feel. You are changed. This is a simple, but difficult fact. And for those who never experienced anything but trauma and loss—you long for safety, for a world you have only heard about, or read about, or seen from far away. And really, it is all a longing for refuge, for a safe space. For care. For a chance to repair what was torn apart. For the chance at a heart that can love again, and can be loved.
My host mother in Germany, a refugee during World War II, recounted a story on my last visit. Her family had fled the East as the Russians approached. They had travelled terrible miles in trains meant for animals—they were exhausted and hungry and frightened. And when they got to the West, host families took in the refuges from the East. The family who took in her family gave them dinner, and clean clothes and warm beds. The host-wife took the youngest sister, a baby, and let my host mother’s mother go to sleep. The first sleep she had had in days. The host family did everything in their worldly power they could to allow that tired refugee family to rest.
That is refuge. The space to rest. To breathe. To look around, not out of fear, but curiosity. Refuge allows you to notice and see. All through the trauma you had to be nothing but vigilant. And refuge allows you the chance, the beginning, a place to practice, just being again.
Everyone needs different amounts of time in refuge. Some people need days or weeks. Some people need years. Some people need decades. In refuge the walls that helped you survive begin to come down—some you actively take down and some just fade away over time. But the walls only come down if you are in a state of refuge, if your brain and heart have an environment to rest in.
No words can capture the heart-wrenching longing that binds you to refuge like a mother to a sick child. A longing that seems to break your heart—because that is exactly what it is doing: breaking down the walls that surrounded your heart during the trauma. This longing is excruciating, intense, and ever-present. And it if you are lucky enough to feel it, to work with it, to lean in to it—it is your lifeline through refuge to healing.
And no words can capture the devotion and gratitude you have for the people who provide this refuge and the fear you can carry that they might leave or disappear. People who live through famine stockpile food. And people who have lived through terror want to stockpile safety—but it's intangible, it always feels as if it could slip through your fingers. It always feels like you could lose this place you have worked so hard to find and keep. That you might be exiled back to trauma at any moment. Refuge is to healing trauma as a cast and crutches are to a broken bone: you must rely on refuge and the people who provide it utterly—you must put all your weight on refuge and your helpers so that the bones of your heart and your life might mend. This is fierce and powerful. And takes more courage than most people recognize.
And then one day, unexplainably, you feel a fleeting sense that you can’t lose it—lose refuge, lose the people, or even abandon yourself. This is sanctuary. That the days, weeks, years of refuge have woven themselves in to your being. That the people who helped you are with you even when you can’t see them. In this fleeting moment you are not standing in refuge, you are standing in sanctuary.
Sanctuary is an open space. Your heart is open. Your mind is open. The future is wide open. In trauma the future is known: you are always anticipating the trauma you lived through. In sanctuary, you really don’t know what might happen next. It is lovely. And it can be scary. Like any big developmental milestone. You have arrived in a place where you can’t return. The way a toddler can’t turn back in to a baby—the way a tree can’t turn back in to a sapling.
Both as a therapist and as a client I have found that healing defies language—and this can get in the way of helping people find and tolerate healing. It’s so hard to find the language of refuge, of sanctuary, of healing. It’s so hard to tolerate the feelings of longing, of leaning, of needing that healing requires. But from my many expeditions I am here to tell you, to report back that these amazing views exist if you stay faithful to your trail. If you trust in your own hard work and the hearts of others.
A few weeks ago, I was in my own struggle in refuge—tangled in longing, in reaching, in the fear of letting go of the ‘known’ shores of the old story. I was walking up the stairs to my office and caught the sight of sunlight on the wall and decided to just turn around and sit on the stairs, half-way up. Sit there and lean on the wall and be in that space—neither here, nor there. Instead of running from the feelings, I would just sit in them. And I did. I sat there for nearly an hour. I sat there long enough to literally lean on refuge, on the walls of my home to hold me up, and find that solid place inside. Find the sanctuary of not abandoning yourself. Find that years of refuge had woven a rope for me to affix myself. To feel solid in a moment I had thought one of my worst. Find that you can lean on your own heart and it holds again. The way to sanctuary is through refuge. You must lean on it with all of your heart, and you will find that the center, your heart, holds.
“I knew not then that it was so near,/ that it was mine,/ and that this perfect sweetness had blossomed/ in the depth of my own heart.”
© 2015 Gretchen L Schmelzer, PhD