Approximately 10 years ago in my work as a pastoral counselor, I had a successive series of trauma events surrounding the sudden loss of adolescent children through death (mostly these involved accidents, although some were instances of drug and alcohol deaths). The intensity of these trauma journeys revealed the insufficiency of my standard care-giving and healing paths, and prompted a necessary deeper reflection on my insufficient trauma awareness.
Most of trauma recovery narratives have as their ultimate objective the state of healing that grants the sufferer at a minimum, restored equilibrium, and a sufficient sense of harmony that allows life to find the goodness that makes life worth living. This goal is not inappropriate but comes with the additional profound recognition that certain wounds will not heal. The death of a child is such a wound. What makes such trauma enduring is multilayered, but two factors do reveal why such trauma remains.
The very structure of the universe seems to evoke of this state of permanence. None of us believes we should outlive our children. Losing them before their time is an affront to creation. It comes to us as a violation of an implicit “pact” we make with life. Deep in our bones we know life is meant to be full and complete, and when a child dies before we do, it defies that deep inner logic. That fact alone brands us forever as sorrow carriers.
But there is an even deeper core to the permanent wound of such a sufferer, which is the flow of love itself. Love, by its very nature is abiding and internal. Love for a child is a “forever love” and is indivisible. Even ruptured parent-child relationships carry that love that even in their alienated form. If anything, an alienated parent-child bond burdens in the love-permanence even more deeply in a stuck way, because the love cannot find the flow, the soothing and reconnecting that the love journey might otherwise find.
Many suffering outcomes flow from this abiding wound. A loss of a child, young or old, researchers have found, leads to all the obvious outcomes such as chronic depression, which often in addition lead to poorer physical health, higher rates of failed marriages, as well as factors such as addictions. Often, these outcomes become more visible even decades later.
A recent New York Times report highlights the preponderance of these trauma events in people’s lives. A Federal Health and retirement study from 1992 to 2014 reported that 11.5% of persons over 50 have lost a child. This number is higher among blacks (16.7%) than whites (10.2%).[i] Demographic changes in society are accelerating the prevalence of these suffering stories. With greater longevity the chances increase that you will outlive your child. Rising rates of drug mortality and suicide in early to midlife will certainly increase these numbers, and will likely accelerate the deepening of this trauma trajectory because of stigmatization factors. So-called “messy” or ambiguous loss narratives carry a particular vulnerability around trauma that has yet to be worked through, and spiritually-minded caregivers need additional layers of sensitivity to address these deeply entrenched patterns.
Pastoral care providers and their communities will certainly need a deepening sensitivity to this reality. There are numerous helpful models of care and strategies of support that pastoral persons have historically found helpful when addressing trauma. But I wish to underscore a particular feature that is found within permanent trauma states. The reason why I need to single out this particular concern will seem obvious, but it remains a difficult notion to grasp.
The great paradox of trauma linked to love is that it cannot be, nor should it be, removed. The very nature of love suggests it forever seeks its love object. Theology has already revealed this truth to us in our experience of God’s love. God’s love is forever seeking to draw us into such love. We are shaped and formed forever in that mode, however faintly we may reflect that reality in our messy lives. We love because we have first been loved, and love ultimately wants to find its way home.
Thus, the abiding necessary journey of love is to have the flow of love restored. All ruptured or lost love must undergo the arduous journey of being “emptied out” from its here and now form. Such losses must be grieved in their hard reality, their permanence, namely in the tangible and real absence of the loved one. Often, our tolerance for the duration of these journeys is limited, both for the sufferer and for those of us accompanying them. This is long haul work. Yet this is why we call it “grief work.”
Any sufferer, of course, experiences the inevitable wish to repress the pain, to find a timeout, to escape from the ache. These efforts should be understood and accepted with sensitivity, compassion, and deep empathy. There is a point, however, when repressed and suppressed suffering narratives break back into awareness. At that critical juncture active support needs to be made available to allow the love narrative to resurface again, and to be reworked as love in the here and now. This means taking the love back into ourselves as an eternal, abiding link. We do this by reworking memory, by listening for dreams, by sensitively holding all the traces of love for and with another. By reworking the traces of love they are taken back into the soul to soothe, comfort, strengthened, and ultimately guide. We are forever informed and changed by the love we have once lived.
Intentional work with one’s own trauma loss narratives, done with the right preparation and right intention, takes us toward the heart of God. The heart of God is that power of the universe that takes all fragments of its life and holds them secure in their realness, and especially in their absent or alienated form. The careful holding of these trauma narratives as they are worked through, incubates them and makes this love available again for future use and eventual return to the larger wholeness of life, understood both individually and collectively. It is of course, also the journey of God and when we are accompanied in this way, in the great mystery of God, we become partners in this endeavor.
[i] NY Times. Paula Span. “A Child’s Death.” September 29, 2017.
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