Recovery from grief: A mother's path through trauma

Struggling with grief as a parent can be challenging, as you attempt to find peace, while also looking after the well-being of children facing a similar challenge. How do you get on a path toward recovering from grief?

Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters
UC Santa Barbara students attend a candlelight march and vigil following Friday's series of drive-by shootings that left seven people dead in the Isla Vista section of Santa Barbara, Calif. on May 24.

Grief seems to be all too often prevalent in our lives – whether we are reading international news, or accounts of mass shootings in the US, or whether we are facing something right at home. 

Last weekend, the precious lives of two people in my own community ended when an individual randomly opened fire in a neighborhood of Norfolk, Va. near where I live. The shooter killed both 17-year-old Mark Rodriquez, and 35-year-old Norfolk Police officer Brian Jones. 

My community, and my personal circle of friends, is now grieving – just like other communities facing violence that doesn’t seem to have a reason.

It doesn’t matter if you personally knew Officer Jones or Mark Rodriquez. If you have children or not, if you appreciate what law enforcement does every day, if you live in our city, or if you live far away, or if you’ve ever been affected by violence or death, then you too can feel this grief with us. 

This morning, on our way into school, my five-year-old twins started up a conversation that went like this: “Hey Mommy: what if Daddy got eaten by a shark? And then what if a bad guy took you away? What if we had no Mommy and no Daddy and we couldn’t even drive yet?!?! Then, what would we do!??” 

After I took a very deep breath, I assured them that they would never be alone, and that no matter what happened in our lives, we would always be their mommy and daddy and that is why we pray and ask God to keep us and the people we love safe every night. They were satisfied.  

I recognized that my own girls were processing this tragedy, even though they knew nothing more than someone we cared about had gotten hurt.

But I wasn’t satisfied, because I immediately felt grief after my response, and I’m sad for the future when my daughters will lose someone they know and love and will have to navigate the hurt.

Knowing that our friends will never hold their son Mark again, and that Officer Jones’ kids will never run screaming with joy toward their dad as he walks in the front door from work is hard.

As a psychologist and a mom, I think we can teach our kids (read: ourselves) that we can respond to this harsh reality in a meaningful way.

The feelings that we have when terrible things happen are clinically called trauma, and it is complex. Trauma matters because it challenges the way we think and feel about ourselves and our world. According to its basic definition, we were one way, then something happened, and now we are changed.

Maybe what changed after an act of unthinkable violence is the physical safety you took for granted, or the future you counted on. Maybe it’s some unimaginable tragedy that has left you asking the question, “How can I trust anything anymore?”

My general concept of a human lifespan is this; we start off as soft fresh babies and we walk our path, whatever that looks like, and then we die after many happy years at an old age, ready to go.

So, when we are faced with what we consider a shortened life, it challenges us and forces us to ask ourselves – is a short life an incomplete life?

Regardless of your worldview and spiritual outlook – and how you might answer that question – all roads are likely to lead us to the conclusion that every day matters

And this perspective is how we approach recovery and healing – as a community and as a nation. Mark and Officer Jones in Norfolk, Va. and all the many other people lost to senseless violence in our country can’t come back, but we can be changed for the better. 

We will not recover from loss by allowing the scar tissue of time to cover over the reality that every day matters. 

Additionally, we will not recover by being paralyzed by fear and anger. But, we can recover through forgiveness, grace, and love.  

It’s incredibly hard to make sense of tragedy, but it is not hard to make sense of love. This is what we can teach our children.

Think about how any trauma from violence has impacted you. Do you see the world differently now? Allow those feelings to compel you to change your perspective: forgive your parent, smile more often at your spouse, knock on your neighbors door to say hi, and look in the mirror each morning knowing that every day matters.  

Remind your children every time they walk out of the door that you love them forever and hug your friends harder. 

And don’t be afraid. Yes, life can seem fragile, and from a human perspective, its bounds out of our control, but we still always have the ability to show lavish, generous love to each other. 

I am positive that the victims of violence would want us to love and serve others.

Struggling with trauma, we can be tempted to give in to pain, but as we remember that every day matters, we can guide our children, and ourselves, toward a meaningful response.

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