Holidays and Trauma: Holding Both

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Holidays are rituals. They are traditions. They are anniversaries. And if you have experienced significant loss or trauma, holidays are an archipelago of memory and loss. Holidays come embedded with reminders and triggers and explosions of memory. That’s exactly what tradition and ritual are supposed to do. But holidays, unlike many ordinary days, are designed as full sensory experiences—they hit our sense of smell, our sense of taste, what we see, the songs we hear. It may be 2016, but to your nose, or your tastebuds or your ears—it’s suddenly 1943, or 1969, or 2003. This time travel at the holidays is true for everyone, not just for people who have experienced trauma, but it is faster for trauma survivors because the memories connected to the songs, or tastes or smells were more frightening and highly charged. They left a more solid imprint.

For many trauma survivors the problem is one of presence: it seems at the holidays you live in two worlds even more than you usually do. The world of the present and the world of the past seem to constantly collide, with the past just as present at times as the present. Perhaps the memories would be easier to hold if there wasn’t the constant pressure to not only hold them but to be happy the whole time. It’s this awful juxtaposition between the memories you hold and the outside expectation of fun. You are sitting at a beautiful meal in the present and you are hearing the violence in your head from fifty years ago. Yet no one at the table knows.

For people who have experienced significant loss, the problem is one of absence. Every holiday marks another occasion where someone or something is missing. It can be a time when the loss is felt so keenly, when you count how old they would be now, what they would think about this holiday, when you see the world without them in stark relief. You feel badly for enjoying something without them. And of course for many people—both are true—the presence of the trauma and the absence of loss. Soldiers who know where they fought during a previous holiday and the troops who didn’t come home with them.

So I say to all those who struggle with trauma and loss at the holidays—you are not alone. Like the tale of the mustard seed, it is unlikely you could sit at any holiday table in the world without finding a fellow pilgrim on the journey of healing—either from trauma or loss. The cure isn’t the modern notion of ‘moving on’—the cure is a more difficult task of holding both. You see when you try to just ‘move on’ –then its either the past or the present—you are jostled involuntarily from one to the other. But if you can build the muscles to hold both –hold that both the past and the present are true—then paradoxically the present can become more real. Holding both allows you to hold your feelings from the past and your feelings in the present as real and true. Holding both is not so much an effort as a softening. You breathe, you acknowledge, you hold, you sit. You don’t do anything in particular, but you don’t run away from yourself and you don’t expect yourself to feel differently than you do. Holding both allows an integrated whole memory to begin to form out of the colliding worlds, out of absence and presence. So start slowly, be kind to yourself as you begin this new practice, and as you feel more solid, reach a hand to someone who is just beginning.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2016



Take two poems and call me in the morning

As a psychologist I don't get to write prescriptions, but if I could, I would most often write them for poems. The language of healing is the language of emotions. And the language of emotions is a hard one for most people to learn. As someone who teaches emotional intelligence in the corporate world, I can tell you that being able to sense your emotion, name it, and then be able to talk about it —and manage it—is a skill that everyone is working on. And when you have lived through long term trauma, this skill is even harder. 

But once you can identify the feeling and want to talk about it, words can fail. I have found that the words often just feel too small for the feeling you are having—or somehow the words don’t connect to the feeling—it feels hollow. But one place that feelings learn to connect to words, and images and stories is poems. Poetry is the intersection of all things emotional. Poems allow your brain to begin to hold the images, feelings, and words in one place, at the same time, without the pressure of a full narrative. 

Poetry?! I hear you saying…I know poems may not seem macho enough for some of you, but that’s because you haven’t met the right poets. You need to meet David Whyte. He’s a poet who, if you saw him, you could say: Man, that guy could kick my ass. Actually, he doesn't need to lay a hand on you-- the blows come anyway. His words help lost parts of yourself find each other. His words can give you the capacity to capture your courage to heal again. In this blog I will often bring in poems and pieces of poems—they are the often the best first start to the language of healing and the practice of living. Poems are invitations to the journey that so many have dared to make—the journey of loss and the journey of reconnecting with life. When you read a poem you join an immense group of fellow pilgrims. You are not alone in your work, in your healing. So in order to heal you can start with this poem—an invitation to start, to find your voice and your courage. David Whyte’s poem Start Close In ~ Here's the first stanza, and the poem read by the author below.

Start close in,

don’t take the second step

or the third,

start with the first


close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.

David's books are available here: Most are available on kindle as well. 

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2014

The Missing Picture

For better or worse there is almost never a picture of the trauma you experienced. If trauma is unspeakable, it is also certainly, often ‘unshowable’ or invisible. It is hard to get the words out, the descriptions out even to describe an image—let alone find a tangible image. Soldiers do not come home from war with photos of battles. They send photos home, like my great uncle did, of young faces in uniforms too big, standing in front of recognizable landmarks in Europe. Some of these black and white photos are in pastures, or in front of village fountains. All of them are mundane. Men smiling. In this case, only the photos returned home. My great uncle did not.