Grieving isn’t fun, and it’s not supposed to be fun.
However, it’s not necessarily supposed to be torture, either.
Grieving is a form of what we call “emotional processing.” We hear that word, “processing,” a lot in psychology, especially regarding the treatment of trauma. “Processing” traumatic memories is something that is considered an important part of recovery from trauma— even though it’s often ambiguous what “processing” is supposed to mean in this context.
All processing is, is coming to terms with what an event means.
Traumatic events are traumatic because they disrupt what are called our “systems of meaning” or “schemas”— basically our ideas or beliefs about how the world works and how we are to function in the world. What makes an event “traumatic” is when it is so negatively impactful that it shatters our sense of what the hell the world is about and what the hell our role in the world is.
When traumatic events happen, they make us question how we can possibly move forward, because we don’t have any real sense of what anything means anymore or what we’re all about anymore.
Losses are traumatic events in the sense that they, too, disrupt our systems of meaning. When we get used to the presence of a person or situation in our life, and suddenly that person or situation is gone, it’s possible for our worlds to kind of shatter— everything we thought we knew about how the world worked and what we’re supposed to do on a daily basis can go out the window in one fell swoop.
Thus, we need to process. We need to figure out what things mean now. We need to figure out how the world works going forward. We need to figure out what our place in the world is now.
Neither traumatic memories nor painful losses will leave us alone UNTIL we process the memories and feelings associated with them. Unprocessed memories and feelings will continue to be walls we run into, again and again, as we try to move forward with our lives.
Run into a wall enough times, and you’ll begin to believe you can’t move forward with your life.
Many people avoid processing work, including grieving, because they think it’s going to be too hard. They think it’s going to feel bad, so bad they can’t take it. They figure that as painful as avoiding this work is, it’ll be even MORE painful to confront it.
The thing about processing work is, while it doesn’t necessarily feel good…it can feel satisfying.
It can finally make you feel RIGHT with the world after a trauma or a loss.
It’s not just torture— any more than any process associated with growing up or moving forward is torture.
It’s worth the risk.
What happens after we process feelings and memories associated with a trauma or a loss? Does the world become a completely different, more pleasant place to be? Are all the symptoms and problems associated with that trauma or loss suddenly gone.
One of the myths of trauma treatment in particular is, once you’ve processed a traumatic event and the thoughts, feelings, and memories that go with it, you’ll never need to deal with post traumatic symptoms again. That’s not true.
It’s true that those post traumatic symptoms have usually cropped up as a way for your body and brain to handle the feelings and memories that have resulted from a trauma…but processing those feelings and memories don’t magically take away those symptoms.
Rather, those symptoms go away gradually as you learn— and, more importantly, consistently USE— coping tools and skills. (In well-structured trauma work, these skills are learned as part of “stage one work,” before any processing of trauma is even on the table.)
Processing is important— but it’s not the only part of therapy that matters.
The other two stages of therapy— building coping tools, skills, and resources on the one hand; and constructing a life worth living going forward on the other— are equally important.
This is why no therapist is ever going to ask you to come in and just “dump” all your trauma or loss in the first few sessions.
Good therapy focuses first on building tools and skills to help you deal with what trauma processing is going to stir up (and the symptoms the trauma itself probably already HAS stirred up)— and then it focuses on where you go from here, so you have a compelling “why” fueling your efforts as you process the trauma.
Don’t avoid emotional processing, whether it’s in the form of grieving or processing trauma material.
That stuff’s not going away.
Neglecting it won’t help.
Pretending it doesn’t exist won’t help.
Wishing it would just go away won’t help.
But what will help is approaching it with respect, caution, and intelligence, with the professional and personal support necessary to reinforce the fact that you’re not alone.
It’s not easy.
But it’s so, so worth it.
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One thought on “Processing grief and trauma 101.”
This is perhaps the most resoundingly impactful post I’ve read of yours. I am a committed follower, and always take away something to think about, but these last few have hit the sweet spot.
I had some counselling, 12 sessions, but it appears I’m ready for more, to take these last steps.
Thank you, I appreciate your honesty and your voice which resonates with clarity.