Transforming Trauma

Nearly all my grief clients can describe a "stand out" event related to the death of someone they love. Stand out events go beyond the shock and pain of loss and into the realm of trauma. Stand out events can stem from a memory, an interaction with another, seeing an upsetting or graphic picture of the person who died, witnessing a death, reading or hearing details about a death, or from any number of random occurrences. People usually know with certainty what their stand out event is and can recall the memory in detail, despite the passing of time.

I, too, can recall a stand out event especially in relation to my dadís death. My dad died when I was 13 years old. He was cremated and I accompanied my mom to the funeral home to pick up his ashes. What I remember from that day was that my mom could not or would not take the box of ashes and so the funeral director handed them to me. At 13, I was completely unprepared for the emotional burden of what that box of ashes represented. My one repetitive thought during that time was that my dad, who once towered over me, was now in a container no larger than the size of a shoebox. I carried the box of ashes to the car and there it sat on my lap until we got home. Once home, my mom put the box up on a shelf in her closet and we went about our day as though nothing significant had happened.

Twenty-seven years later, I continued to carry the weight of that experience in my heart and could still feel the heaviness of the box in my arms. I spent a lot of time thinking about my dadís ashes, which now sat sandwiched in the closet between the remains of my grandmother, grandfather, and step-grandfather. I had a strong desire to "set my dad free" - scatter his ashes somewhere special, perhaps over a ball field to honor his love of the sport. I finally gathered the courage to ask my mom if I could have my dadís ashes, and she graciously gave them to me. I brought them to my home and, wouldnít you know it, put them up on a shelf in my closet.

Two years later, the ashes were still in my closet. As much as I wanted to scatter them, I was consumed with the fear of a 13-year-old girl, a girl who still felt traumatized by her fatherís death and the weight of his ashes in her arms. People dear to me offered to go with me when I scattered them, but I felt that I needed to do this alone. It took a while, but I finally swallowed my fear, knowing that my dad would love to be back on the ball field again. I had to trust that I could and would get through the experience of holding and opening that box, seeing and scattering the ashes. I did get through it. And it was worth it.

It is never too late to "go back" and do what needs to be done. No matter what the circumstance, we can create rituals that help heal our past, and we can continue to have a meaningful relationship with the person who died.

© Jill Lehman, MFT

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