Trauma and Grief in Recovery
Patrick B. McGinnis, PhD
Certainly after the events of September 11 most of us qualify for traumatic
stress under one or more of these conditions:
1) Fear for your own life or limb
2) Fear for the life or limb of a loved one
3) Witnessing violence to, or the violent death of, others-including repeated
For those of us in recovery, how we chose to deal with the current trauma, and
related old traumas, can be crucial to our recovery process. Where you are in
your recovery will help to determine what you need to do now to help yourself.
Some of those in early recovery may use the recent events as an excuse to use
again. Others may choose to try to deal with their emotions as best they can and
You may feel like you've been scrubbed raw and are sensitive to everything:
noise, conflicts, day to day problems that need solving. You may react badly to
others who seem too self-absorbed and preoccupied with what you think are petty,
insignificant issues. You may be angry, irritable, and “edgy.” You may feel like
striking out at people who look suspicious or don’t meet your expectations. If
you were feeling anxiety prior to the attack on New York and Washington, you may
have become much more anxious. You may feel so overwhelmed and powerless that
you are shutting down and going numb. You may feel some of all of these
reactions at different times and so you might question your sanity.
You may be concerned about further terrorist attacks on our country. You may be
concerned whether there will be a war and what the effect may be. You, or a
loved one, may be in the National Guard or in the military reserves. You may be
eligible for a military draft-or you have a child that could be caught up in a
war. You may be concerned about prejudice toward certain ethnic groups. Whatever
your anxieties are about, they feel real and valid. You are waiting . . . and
perhaps you are feeling powerless and anxious.
You may feel irrevocably changed (and you probably are) and you are not sure
that you are prepared for the change.
All of these are normal trauma and grief reactions.
Some tips for everyone (regardless of where you are in recovery):
Take frequent breaks from the news media.
Go outside and interact with some of the vast multitude of things that have
not changed--your pet, the trees, beach, or someone's baby.
Be with other people who are grieving--at places of worship and public
gatherings. Contact is critical to coping with trauma and is a major mediator of
Move your body--walk, go to aerobics class, get on the treadmill. Moving may
give your emotions an outlet and give you some relief. Or may let your feelings
come through and flow.
The grief response is normal--most people are crying and/or angry and/or
scared and/or stunned.
It is okay to laugh, even though horrible things have happened.
It is okay to entertain yourself. Art and music heals. So, it seems, does
It is okay to feel better. It is okay not to feel better yet.
And for those in acute grief (for any reason), be aware of the three rules of
1. It always lasts longer than you think it should.
2. It always hurts much more than you think it ought to.
3. It is awful.
Expect any big trauma you ever had to come up as a node associated to the
disaster. If you are in early recovery, it may be enough just to realize this
and to remind yourself every so often if the feelings get too intense. If you
are in a more advanced stage of recovery, you may find that working on clearing
the earlier trauma helps you to cope and grieve the current one. Victims of
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may be experiencing flashbacks--even if
the original trauma seems unrelated to the current situation--and may need
professional treatment. Many recovering people have spent much of their recent
lives trying to establish a sense of safety (with some success); but now it may
feel gone and they are feeling in trouble again.
For many in early to middle recovery, the current grief will trigger associated
grief feelings about the damage they've done prior to recovery. This may be an
opportunity to work on an inventory or to make amends to those they’ve harmed.
Those in advanced recovery may find old unresolved traumas surfacing and may
want to deal with these now, while the feelings are triggered. Probably the most
common trauma is one that has its roots in the family of origin. Sometimes this
stemmed from specific abuse, but more often it simply arises from parents being
human and therefore unable to meet every need you had. This resulted in the
black hole at every addict’s center-the one you try to fill from outside but
can’t. Recovery at this level, comes through grieving for the “perfect” family
you deserved but didn't have.
No parent is perfect and all parents perpetrate some type of trauma to a greater
our lesser extent (not because they are evil-they just can’t do everything their
children need all of the time). Many survivors of childhood abuse relate that
having parents who weren’t there for them was many times worse then any overt
Small children hold two opposite types of feelings about all parental trauma
perpetrators at almost the same time. There are negative, painful emotions and
there are positive, loving ones.
The Problem of Attachment to the Perpetrator
Survival is a basic need every human being has (even as an infant). Attachment
and dependence are the first developmental task. Everyone experiences ambivalent
attachment due to imperfect parenting. This leads to individuation with
unresolved attachment issues. In trauma families the child must attach to people
who are hurting him or her. Children naturally pull back from hurting, so these
children must somehow pull back, and attach at the same time. This can feel
overwhelming. In order to attach, the child has to develop an internal
split/dissociation. They can’t tolerate both feelings (negative and positive) at
the same time and learn to use what is termed reaction formation to cope (taking
on the opposite feeling and behavior than what is really felt).
Hiding half of their feelings and, therefore, who they really are, they bounce
back and forth between negative and positive feelings. Many develop addictions
to medicate this overwhelming condition. Children raised in families that are
more toxic carry this pattern of ambivalence into their adult relationships.
The goal in recovery is to integrate the opposite poles or to be able to hold
(tolerate) them at the same time. This aspect of addiction recovery entails
systematic desensitization through facing the emotions that scare us (in small
manageable steps). For example, we move into anger and learn that we can manage
our anger and not go out of control. Treatment is about what ultimately was
being avoided-grief. We desensitize grief through mourning the loss of the
parents we never had.
The Locus of Control Shift
Small children see themselves as responsible for everything that happens in
their life. This gives them the illusion of power and control. Because of the
internal split, children see their parents as all good (a survival necessity).
Children believe they
must be bad if something bad is happening. Having bad
feelings and/or being abused proves they must be bad and reinforces the locus of
control shift. Children learn to abandon themselves and attach to the people who
abuse them. This shift in the locus of control is carried as a pattern into the
present, colors all relationships (with self and others), helps drive
addictions, and locks us into the Victim - Rescuer - Perpetrator Triangle.
The healing task is to be able to say, “I deserved better. It is not my fault.”
and believe it. This in entails experiencing and going through grief to reach a
place of self-acceptance. Be careful not short-change the grieving process, by
necessity it involves intense feelings of anger and sadness.
Victim - Rescuer - Perpetrator Triangle
Victims need Perpetrators so they can feel sorry for themselves and get sympathy
from others. Perpetrators need Victims so they can feel powerful. Rescuers need
to have Victims to rescue from Perpetrators (sometimes rescuers persecute
perpetrators of others) in order to feel good about themselves. Victims need
Rescuers to feel valuable. This is a never-ending cycle. We favor certain roles
but, dependent upon the players and situation, we can switch from one role to
another to achieve the outcome we need-but we stay within the three roles.
The solution is to break free of the power-struggle dynamic while it is
occurring. If we refuse to play the game . . . move out of the pattern, we can
learn to be free. The other players won’t like this and they will increase
pressure to keep the game going. Be conscious of your roles and choose to break
free. This takes awareness and practice; over time you will improve.
You may want to ask yourself: What role do I play the most? With whom? Under
what circumstances? Which other roles do I play and with whom?
Finally in dealing with the current trauma, don't forget to help your children.
The sensitivity of children is tremendous. They often don't “show out” because
they are watching the distress in adults and are scared to add their distress to
the distress they are seeing. This is part of the locus of control shift. They
need your help right now in expressing their own fears. Allow this, encourage
it, but don’t force it.
Lastly, when you are ready to help others, remember the platinum rule: “Fill
your own cup first, then give away what’s left over.”
Copyright © 2001 Patrick B. McGinnis, PhD. All rights reserved.