As a clinician, I have worked with many people as they walk through trauma and loss, present and past. As a spiritual director, I have waded into the waters of grief, loss, and change as people seek to find order and purpose in the midst of the chaos of those experiences. And as a fellow traveler myself, I know my own journey from a place where everything felt structured through that wilderness of dis-order, through the places where that order no longer mattered, and to places outside of the accepted order.
Trauma and loss are dis-ordering events.
We feel outside of the “ordinary” experience.
There is almost a strange sort of observer status that one feels when you have experienced trauma or loss. You are there; you are walking alongside others and participating in life; but something is different. It is easy to feel separated from everyone else.
It is as if you suddenly go from being in the movie to watching the screen from the outside.
In trauma work, this is often referred to as “dissociation”. While you may remember that trauma triggers our fight/flight mechanism, intellectually we often skip that initial “freeze” response or “shock”. This “freeze” response is why people often report a feeling of dislocation from the original event. It is also why you may have the experience of walking through a “fog” following the death of a loved one. That murkiness of thought can last from minutes to miles of the journey.
The previous order no longer holds.
This is often where ideas about God and meaning and purpose begin to reveal fissures and fractures. Deep loss and trauma do not fit well within a universe in which a good God is also a powerful and ordering being. Trauma and loss do not feel like benevolence at all. It hurts. It is hard.
You can either keep trying to hold onto a structure that no longer works, or experience the anxiety of letting it go.
There is a terrifying and dizzying feeling of chaos in between.
I had someone who once described this as a trapeze artist letting go of one bar while swinging toward the other. In that situation, the artist has practiced the move over and over again. There is some safety in knowing that the bar is moving toward you.
But with trauma, that sense of safety is gone too. You hope that there will be life after, but there is no guarantee that the bar will be there for you to grab. There is no guarantee of a net to catch you should you fall.
We begin to reach toward some way of ordering our experience.
This is often where we work to “tell the story” of the trauma or loss. Words matter. The narrative we tell ourselves about the loss matters. We could tell ourselves a story of resilience where the road was difficult and long but “we made it because we kept going”. We could also tell ourselves a story where we are helpless and hopeless and “it never gets better”.
Telling our selves a story about the trauma does not change the fact that it happened; but it can help us figure out the next steps.
Our selves want to find a way to bring order to the chaos of the loss or trauma. To do that we often must draw close to the wound, to really see it, touch it, and then begin to tell the story of it, to make meaning out of the trauma.
Alphas, omegas, and numbering the days.
Today, on reading the lectionary, I was reminded of this line from Revelation, “I am the alpha and omega”. This “alpha” and “omega” are the initial and final letters of the Greek alphabet, the language in which this text was written. Many scholars think that the book of Revelation was written during the time of the Roman oppression, a time of persecution of the early Christian church. This is part of why there is so much confusing symbolic language present, to hide the subject and meaning because of fear for their lives.
This period of early Christian history would have been a time of chaos and disorder, of trauma and multiple losses.
As for the Christian calendar, next Sunday is Pentecost, beginning a season which is sometimes referred to as “Ordinary Time”. But it is not “ordinary” because it is commonplace or boring or simple. It is “ordinary” because each Sunday is listed by how many Sundays it has been since Pentecost. So the following Sunday will be the First Sunday after Pentecost. The next will be the Second Sunday after Pentecost . . . and on and on.
Because after an experience of death, loss, and trauma, (even when we see that new life/resurrection has come), we need the feeling of “ordering” our days, counting them, knowing that after 1 comes 2, then 3, and 4 then 5; we need a sense that there is an “alpha” and an “omega”.
We begin taking one step at a time again. Yes, you may relate to others in a different way after the trauma. Your relationship to your faith may have moved to a place where you had to discard the “easy answers” and settle into a new place of relationship. You may have had some good arguments with God along the way … but that is the way that relationships work.
And in the end, this “ordering” of our lives is a structure that works for a while, step by step.
We understand that the structure of our lives is not necessarily permanent, even though we were counting on 1 to lead to 2 and then to 3. Sands can shift again. But we appreciate the “ordinary time” while it lasts, helping us find some footing again for our journey, appreciating the companions we find along the way, appreciating the Companion who is with us, in us, around us.