Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Grief, accumulated: Thoughts on secondary trauma, writing and resilience

It started with Sean's suicide last April. And then a few month's later, Bud's lost battle with pancreatic cancer. And then John's heart attack followed shortly after by Nick's. By the time the Newtown massacre hit in December, I couldn't write a word. I managed to eke out some lighthearted blog posts but nothing really of substance.

I was afraid I'd lost my words.

Historically, my answer to managing grief has involved food. An admitted emotional eater, I would cook, munch, and sip my way through sad feelings. After starting this blog in 2009, however, I started to turn to a less calorie laden coping mechanism: writing.

A life long journal writer, I've always scribbled about my feelings, but thinking, organizing and writing thoughts about trauma for public consumption helped me to make sense of events and sometimes, offer something constructive. For instance, when I learned that a friend killed himself, I wrote something of a PSA about suicide.

Years before I would learn about the benefits of therapeutic writing, I employed some of its tenets to deal with grief from sudden loss, try to understand senseless tragedy, and make sense of my own harrowing experience. Writing helped me work through the sometimes overwhelming feelings.

But lately, I've felt blocked. And by lately, I mean for the last eight months. The more I think about it, the more I realize that my problem is something related to the cumulative effects of grief.

It started to dawn on me while reading coverage of the Boston bombings tragedy that for the last several years, traumatic events have been piling up around me. Not often direct personal losses, but devastation in the lives of people dear to me, in my immediate social network or in the world (e.g., the Reno Air Races crash in 2011, Newtown, Boston). With each new traumatic experience, feelings of sorrow, anger, shock, disbelief, bitterness seem to layer on top of each other so that processing a new sad event calls up all the feelings from the past. With so many losses, I started to feel depressed and somewhat worried about when the next inevitable trauma would take place.
Thanks to a dear friend who posted this quote on
Facebook recently. Seems to be the definition of
resilience and a good reminder for me.

I articulate these feelings partly to process, but mostly because I know that as a society, we are uncomfortable talking about death and grief. And we seem to have tacit rules about what grieving is supposed to be like. For instance, we give people a time limit for grief. When that ephemeral time ends, they are supposed to snap out of it even though the grieving process can take years. And it seems we also have rules around who can grieve for whom--who has the "right" to grieve.

Consequently, I've felt strange publicly mourning sad events that aren't intimately connected to me. For example, in the last year, two of my professors died and a college friend's baby passed away only a few days after she was born. These losses gutted me, but as I was on less intimate terms with the people involved, I felt stupid/imposter-ish talking/writing about it much.

Like a good researcher, I looked for some scholarly writing to help me put a name to my feelings. I stumbled across a paper that described accumulated grief as "emotional cholesterol" and an article about "compassion fatigue" which primarily describes the work of professional caregivers and the effects of "secondary traumatic stress" which is basically experiencing the trauma of others vicariously. Some related symptoms? Sadness, anger, detachment, intrusive thoughts, emotional exhaustion. I even considered my own research regarding "emotional taxes," which are "paid" during compulsory interactions. In terms of life events, few things seem more demanding and all consuming than grief so I suppose the term fits, too. Given what I know about emotion regulation--that trying to bottle negative feelings will make you experience them more forcefully--I've been contemplating how to shake this ongoing malaise.

So I did a little reading about resilience--the ability to experience trauma/set-backs and bounce back/move on/thrive--and I meditated on why, now, I'm having a tough time dealing with grief. What have I done differently in years past, especially years with just as many awful events?

It wasn't until the last few weeks that the answer hit me. During the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry in May, I attended a double memorial for Bud Goodall and Nick Trujillo, my professors who passed away last year. A week later, I participated in memorial mass for a friend who was murdered six years ago. What struck me was that after both memorials, people thanked me profusely for attending and said how much they appreciated their loved ones being remembered. And I realized a key difference between my processing this year and in history has been acknowledgment, and lately, a critical lack thereof.

For some reason--maybe due to some unrelated-to-grief traumatic events, ahem--writing about others' losses has felt intrusive. I know Bud's probably in heaven laughing about this epiphany, but I'm just realizing again that writing about trauma is one way of honoring, paying tribute and remembering people especially when distance--emotional and physical--make participating in communal grieving impossible.

And so, with these thoughts finally expressed instead of buried, I will end this post on a note of remembrance. Sean McGrew, Hudson Ruth Walter, John Crouse, Bud Goodall, Nick Trujillo, Ron Ledford, John Pogacar, Andrea Bowie, Grant Wheeler, Ali Sadeq, the people lost in Newtown, Boston, Reno, and recently, Oklahoma, and many, many others not mentioned by name, I will remember you always.

Please feel free to leave a comment remembering a loved one, too.



  1. Good stuff. Having tragically lost a professor at tamu, this was helpful. I've not written about it because it felt invasive, as you said. Thanks, Shawna.

    1. You are most welcome. So sad to hear about that death as well. Ugh!

  2. I posted this on the 20th year of my Dad's death:

    I wasn’t there that morning

    The next year rolled around, February 3rd came and went and I didn't even realize it. Writing it down finally got out the sadness. I don't dream about him sick anymore.

    1. I get a 404 error for your link. Amazing what a difference writing can make sometimes.

  3. Why is it that writing-as-catharsis works for you but feels like it compounds the problem for me? You cut a little too close to my truths and as noted above, some matters are invasive.

    I'm afraid to be real now assuming I even felt I had someone I could actually be brutally honest with about decisions, griefs, emotion regulation and even org. comm. without fear of judgment [Insert useful organizational communication-related comment here in lieu of a real comment - which isn't to say I haven't been tempted several times to attempt useful contribution to your blog or hoped to be sufficiently inspired to begin my own]

  4. As one who has not experienced such a gauntlet of loss in such a short time, this might be easier for me to decipher the feeling of grief. But to me, grief is more of a selfish state of mind. I do not mean this as a negative state. What I mean is, it is our natal way of dealing with "our" loss or feeling badly for those who have lost someone is to be sad because our dear friend or family member will not be around to help us, to coach us to be there when we are down. When my mother passed away several years ago I was overwhelmed with grief. But the more I searched my feelings I realized I was so very sad because "I" would never see her again. I was not as much sad for her and my Dad, but sad for me because something had been taken away. So building on that realization I decided to rejoice in the fact that she had lived long and well and had a family and a full life and I felt honored that I had been her son and that I had known her. She gave me so many positive values and attitudes to use in life that I still think about her everyday but, now in a blessed and grateful way. Thanks Mom!

    1. Beautiful tribute to your mom! Important point about how difficult grief can be when it's internalized/self-focused.

  5. I've been thinking about your post since you tweeted it. I find that I do this now: I think, rather than write. This is not how I've always reacted - I used to write. For years I have wondered if I've become lazy with my reflections, more inclined to mull them over in my mind rather than move sift through them on the page. Yesterday as I pushed myself into a bit of journaling I was actually discouraged to realize that my hand was tired after about a page - and it's not like writing is an endurance sport! It's not really a good feeling. But, I can pretty much pinpoint the moment in my life I moved away from putting pen to paper to work through things. After my mom died in 2000 I did what I'd always done and written in my journal. I wrote letters to her and poured my hurt and confusion onto those pages. I took the small book with me to her gravesite and carried it in the car (a particularly emotional space for me). Then about one year after her death my car was broken into - and while the stereo was left intact my journal was lifted. Oh man. That felt terrible. That was 13 years ago and it's still hard for me to write like I did before that. I edit myself as I write - even notes. I second guess my thoughts and keep them in my head. It's tough.
    Reflecting on what you wrote - I think I can also acknowledge that this single event isn't the only thing that has kept me away from writing like I once did. I suffered through some other significant losses and life got hard. I wonder if there's something about coping and resilience that, for me, has meant moving away from spending the time and emotional energy documenting the myriad of emotions that accompany loss and heartache. Rather, that I've just needed to keep moving forward. To acknowledge thoughts and emotions as they arise but not give too much voice or weight to them. I try to be kind to myself about how I've moved through these experiences - but I've been wondering if I'm about ready to move back to putting pen to paper. Because, honestly, I miss it.
    Much gratitude for your post. - Janell

    1. My heart aches to think about your loss being compounded by such a terrible theft! I'm so sorry that happened to you.

      Your reflection about resilience involving acknowledging thoughts and emotions while not giving them too much weight/significance makes sense to me. The last 5-6 years have been intensely difficult on the family front and in retrospect, it's not surprisingly to me that I've blogged more and journaled less since the former tends to involve more filtering and less rumination. Hmmm.

      Hope whatever form your writing takes, that it goes well. :)

  6. You sweet girl, thank you so much for honoring Hudson with your post, and for sharing your candid and genuine thoughts on the whole business of grief and loss. It's a messy business but I have found (and I'm no expert, just stumbling through) that the best we can do is be honest and open with both ourselves and with others. There is such a release in honesty. What you've written here is priceless and I hope can help others.

  7. This is brilliant, insightful and compassionately written. I also particularly appreciated you sharing the article by John. Thank you :-)