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What to do after a traumatic, unexpected loss? Get help ASAP

A heartbreaking tragedy occurred in a small town where I live with my family. I recall the therapy sessions I had the day after that tragedy, mostly with women, primarily mothers. There wasn't a single psychotherapy session where one didn't mention that devastating event; for some, it triggered deep fears, worries, and old wounds.

In our family, that tragedy put something else in motion. One of us witnessed a similar tragic event a year earlier.

As months passed, I experienced firsthand how we can easily underestimate the impact of a traumatic event on our lives. And this wasn't the first time it had happened to me, a professional! The nature of trauma is so tricky. I know how we tend to underestimate the impact of trauma, and we do that not because we don't care - but because we are not educated enough and because of that precise tricky energetic nature of trauma.

I think creating awareness around psychological trauma is one of the critical issues for overall mental health in our society. Psychological trauma has also been a much-researched topic over the past decade, and that's excellent. But as we need many more trauma-informed professionals, we also need a systemic change that incorporates awareness about trauma. People must be aware of the importance of addressing traumatic events as quickly as possible. My own story about delayed trauma work talks about the unpleasant consequences that can come after trauma. I hope you can learn from my experience as much as possible and avoid unnecessary mistakes.

I. The London EFT workshop

I sat down on a narrow, hard chair. I had on high, warm boots, a thick wool dress, double sleeves, and a wool scarf, and I was freezing like crazy. Well, every city and every province has its cold, and I don't mind cold, but the insidious sharpness of the English wet cold always catches me unprepared.

That early winter, I guess it was November, London's cold was in my bones. I was in a group of fifteen, maybe twenty people. We worked in a large studio with high walls, huge windows, stage lights, cables, and a sound system hung from the ceiling. It was raining outside. Mariam sat beside me, holding my hand and waiting. We'd spoken for the first time a little over half an hour ago. There was a rehearsal in pairs, and we chose our partners. In workshops like these, you don't know the people, so usually select the partner closest to you. In this case, it was Mariam. We agreed that I'd be the therapist in the first round and Mariam would be the client. In this exercise, we worked with a traumatic event as a part of training in EFT, the Emotional Freedom Technique.

Everyone calls EFT "tapping," but technically, it's actually "acupressure for emotions." It's a widely used, simple, and popular self-help technique which can be used creatively for treatments in psychotherapy - especially as a trauma tapping technique.

After 40 minutes, we switched roles in the group. Now I was a client, and Mariam was a therapist. "What do you want to work on?" she asked. I was silent for a while. I felt the discomfort of the hard chair and thought about my choices. I then asked myself: how do I believe in Mariam's presence? Do I trust her? She's a stranger. Am I willing to risk sharing what I'd like to share and work on? She held my hand and waited attentively. "Yes, I know what I want to work on," I answered.

In my gut, that "yes" felt good. She asked, "You already know the title of the movie?" In EFT, the movie is the name for a simple technique, the movie technique, which helps to process past traumatic events safely. This technique reduces the likelihood that the overwhelming bundles of energy - emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations - associated with the past event will "leak out" of the chaotic, often fragmented accumulation of memory traces that the trauma has left in the body-mind. Working with trauma is about moving forward in small steps. If there's one rule in trauma therapy, it's to move slowly and gradually; the process is a bit like titration in chemistry.

Working with trauma is about moving forward in incremental steps. Slow is quick, less is more.

II. Loss of a loved one by suicide? The sadness, the terror, the mystery

I feel so sorry for the people who commit suicide. I feel sorry for their pain and suffering, and I feel indignant and helpless, numbly angry because society hasn't found ways to reach them, and they haven't seen or found other ways to break out of the constricted feeling that eventually leads to suicide.

Suicide as a phenomenon and reality no less makes me deeply sad because, on one hand I experience the beauty of life on this planet. Part of me cannot believe why anyone would want to leave this realm prematurely because there is, there can be, so much beauty in human life.

And at the same time, I know what a "suffocating room without windows" is.

A suffocating room with no view is something that people who feel trapped in their psyche often describe how they feel where the illusion of hopelessness, lack of solutions, and doom prevails. And I know that people consciously or unconsciously choose the path of suicide because they've exhausted all other options to move forward in their lives. I'm sure they're searching for light and liberation, perhaps even redemption.

My late teacher once explained that people who attempt suicide are unaware of a law that there's a solution to every problem. My other teacher once said before people attempt suicide, a psychogenic, energetic force slowly builds up in the unconscious parts of the psyche and takes over their mind; it takes over the ego, the consciousness.

People become trapped in an illusion from which there seems to be no way out.

When I work with relatives that lost someone they loved by suicide, it is clear event leaves a traumatic impression on them, their families, and their communities. This is, even more, emphasized when the family avoids the subject of suicide because it's simply too painful for them. It's not uncommon for suicide to be a well-kept secret for generations. Peter Hook, Joy Division's bassist, said in a podcast interview in 2020 about lead singer and lyricist Ian Curtis' suicide in 1980:

The awful thing about suicide is, the person who commits suicide, their problems are over. And yet yours and everybody left behind—his family, his parents, everybody else, in every occasion—theirs is just beginning. And they last all your life.”

Dealing with a loss by suicide is daunting. Often an unimaginable amount of guilt remains with the bereaved. It's not uncommon for it to take years to resolve some self-imposed excess responsibility and perhaps, slowly, very slowly, come to a place of gentle self-love and small tiny drops of what could have been a cautious self-forgiveness, sometimes for a moment, or two... Tim Ferris, writer and interviewer, who himself suffered suicidal depression, considers the far-reaching ripples of grief and sorrow that the act sets into motion:

"Killing yourself can spiritually kill other people. Your death is not perfectly isolated. It can destroy a lot, whether your family (who will blame themselves), other loved ones or simply the law enforcement officers or coroners who have to haul your death mask-wearing carcass out of an apartment or the woods. The guaranteed outcome of suicide is NOT things improving for you (or going blank), but creating a catastrophe for others…

A friend once told me that killing yourself is like taking your pain, multiplying it by 10, and giving it to the ones who love you. I agree with this, but there’s more to it. Beyond any loved ones, you could include neighbors, innocent bystanders exposed to your death, and people — often kids — who commit “copycat suicides” when they read about your demise. This is the reality, not the cure-all fantasy, of suicide."

Now, I want to tell you more about what happened in London and how I was processing the loss of my friend...

III. Tapping trauma technique

With Mariam, we started to tap. My body was shivering. Not from the cold, though. Mariam and I worked; I narrated a "movie." It went well. In the beginning, I seemed to remember everything from that day years ago very clearly. Where was I, who called me to tell me about the death, what the caller said, how I responded? Then I felt a tight chest; sadness rose like groundwater from my heart while my legs were restless and shaking.

Mariam tapped on me, emotions came up, and I was full of thoughts and feelings that I didn't even know I still had inside me, that I still had at all. The shock of losing my friend to suicide was huge for me. I was not in good standing with my friend for a few months before she left. I was also vulnerable, had two very young children, and was amidst a significant life change. It was too much for me to handle, and her death was a shock. With Mariam, we persistently tapped forward. The shivering of my body, which was certainly not from the infamous London winter cold, was the result of an energetic release - the release of some of the subtle energy in my physical, emotional and mental body. Every bit of memory that emotionally overwhelmed me, we tapped away. My legs trembled, and I felt gentle waves of the compressed energy I'd kept inside me all these years. My legs and arms were like jello. All these emotions were pouring out of my core. All the pain. We tapped, and I repeated, "Even though it was too late to help her and there was nothing I could do, I deeply love and accept myself..." "Even though I couldn't say goodbye to her and it was too late to say goodbye, I deeply love and accept myself"... "Even though it's too late for everything and it's all over, I choose to love and respect myself...." "This pain..." "This sadness..." I was going through waves of guilt, emptiness, helplessness, then guilt again. I felt the energy of the shock that remained in my body. The pain from when I learned my friend was gone in the most tragic event, and would never be with me again, flowed through my body. Sitting with Mariam on that cold winter day was a chaotic, tumultuous, powerful micro-journey through a cascade of my feelings, images, and thoughts. But it was a liberating experience. The tapping worked as any tapping trauma technique should. It released me from emotional pain that had lain dormant for many years and helped me restore my energetic balance regarding my dear friend's sad loss.

IV. A post-traumatic consciousness: grief and grieving

Grieving after the loss of a loved one, whether expected or unexpected, is exhausting. Grief is the universal human experience, probably the densest, most confusing, and most profound. But grief, after things happen unexpectedly, is also extra demanding. Suicide in most cases probably qualifies as an unexpected, tragic loss; an unexpected loss occurs through an accident, a brief terminal illness, a murder, or a suicide. There's little chance that the survivors - the people who were close to the deceased - won't undergo some trauma after such an unexpected event.

The closer someone was to us, the more conflicted our feelings toward them, the more dependent the relationship, the more intensely we respond to trauma of the unexpected loss.

Any grief process goes through commonly known stages, albeit not in that exact order:

  • denial,

  • anger,

  • bargaining,

  • depression,

  • acceptance, and

  • formation of meaning.

All of these become even more challenging in unexpected losses. The shock that occurs when people receive unexpected news triggers hundreds of chemical reactions in our bodies. They are flooded with a cocktail of adrenaline, cortisol, and oxytocin. Later, in the hours, days, and weeks to come, people experience a mixture of exhaustion, crying, waves of sadness, mental confusion, anxiety, restless agitation and agitation of the body (startle), numbness and dissociation, often an inability to reach out and talk to others about what's going on inside them.

The sense of time and space change dramatically when people kick into grieving from an unexpected loss. People can enter a trans-kind of state of altered consciousness, I call it a post-traumatic consciousness, and it is dramatically different from our everyday state of mind; it's a psychadelic experience.

If trauma is an event or series of events, then processing trauma is a process. In dealing with trauma, we must endure inner and outer chaos with as much support as possible. Initially, dealing with the shock wave of unexpected loss depends on several factors. One is how we can, in the first place, neuro-regulate the intensity of the feelings and then consciously process a mosaic of fragmented emotional and mental details. If we don't have enough internal and external resources to cope with the loss, trauma can get anchored in the bodymind and unconsciously affect our life flow.

A traumatic event is like a magnet or a black hole pulling us inside. - Jasmin Lee Cori

Losing my friend to suicide has left a big hole in my heart and soul. For many winters, I couldn't get over it. There were hours when the memory of her suddenly appeared, and I was all of a sudden engulfed by a memory of her, and deep feelings of grief and guilt accompanied me, sitting on my sofa like ghostly, uninvited guests.

For years, the melancholy echo of her disappeared presence overlapped my December days, dimming Christmas lights, for that was a time in a year when she left and when I later felt how very much she'd gone painfully. I couldn't accept she was gone. I also couldn't get over the fact that I didn't have the opportunity to say goodbye. I also found no comfort in the idea that she'd perhaps vanished into a space of grace without human suffering and pain.

I also made some decisions in my relationships that were saturated with the unprocessed traumatic energy of my friend's suicide. Years later, I'm sure I would act differently if I'd been free of trauma energy and if I'd processed my trauma beforehand. Although, as a psychologist and trained psychotherapist, I was so familiar with early developmental trauma and its effects on later attachment, relationships in general, and work fulfillment, I underestimated the impact of a single trauma of unexpected loss that happened to me.

My emotional problems began to dissolve after a tapping session with Mariam. The problem with traumatic memories is that they often keep us in the past as we tend to hold onto their fear in the present day. For example, since that London tapping session, I have stopped sitting on my sofa, getting lost in thoughts about my friend. A course correction took place within me. Until that November day in London, my body had been only a silent guardian of unprocessed trauma. The trauma remnants were spinning in circles inside me, affecting some crucial decisions I was making. On that rainy and cold November day, I began to distance myself emotionally and mentally from the complicated chaos created within me by the unexpected death of my friend.

V. Working with trauma - an energy psychology view

Emotional or psychological trauma involves a specific single event or multiple diverse or repetitive events. In the first case, we speak of acute trauma; in the second and third cases, when the circumstances are repeated, the effects accumulate, and we speak of chronic trauma.

However, as much trauma is about the event, is also about the holistic consequences of the event. It's not the sole nature of the event that's a sign of trauma. What matters is the way a person responds to an event and a particular set of circumstances that happens or follows.

So basically, the response to trauma is very individual. The criteria are how a person's body, Psyche, and soul react to something happening and how the energetic effects of the trauma are processed in the body, mind, and spirit. If the event is traumatic for someone, their ability to respond to the situation is consciously exceeded, and the delicate energetic balance (physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual) is jeopardized. If we cannot restore energy balance, such events often have far-reaching effects on people's overall well-being and quality of life. Traumatic events include various accidents, losses in all areas of life (expected and unexpected), frequent or chronic illnesses, terminal illnesses, surgeries, challenging pregnancies and births, abuse of any kind, assaults, violence, including self-harm, collective trauma (natural disasters, war, pandemics). We can think of trauma as shrapnel that explodes in the tissues into countless small bullets that then remain in the tissues of the Psyche, causing excruciating pain. Because of the shock and force of the event and our limited ability to deal with it for many reasons, we cannot consciously process the event(s); therefore, the remnants scatter in our inner psychological space and detach from consciousness. When we use energetic, psychological techniques in psychotherapy, we say we're doing trauma work by working with an active origin. Working with an energetic source is actually about picking up beads from the fabric of the Psyche. In my practice, I use a combination of Dynamic Energetic Healing®, tapping, and some other forms of energy psychology for this purpose. But the basis of work is never a technique. It's my therapeutic attitude and presence and how we build a safe and confidential relationship with the women I work with.

My London session with Mariam lasted 45 minutes because I'm a very experienced client. I've done a lot of inner work myself and know how to regulate myself; I'm grounded and connected. If that weren't the case, I probably wouldn't get as much out of a single tapping session. Healing work is a process, and even though people would like it not to be and for everything to go as quickly as possible, trauma work takes time. And it also takes a lot of courage and perseverance. It often brings extraordinary growth and opens doors to entirely new perspectives on Life, but it takes time and energy to get there. That's just the way it is.

VI. Signs and signals of unprocessed trauma

Unprocessed trauma always leaves traces. Those traces are hidden or palpable imprints on the body, mind, and spirit.

The unprocessed trauma residues, "the shrapnel beads," remains in the tissue of our Psyche, and sink in deeply and wide. They can affect our belief matrix, and thus our perceptions, and thus the way we frame reality.

Trauma residue manifests itself in emotional states and behaviors that range from weak to moderate to very strong. In the broadest sense, unprocessed trauma may look like a set of "symptoms" that the pathologizing diagnostic systems of Western psychiatry, which are more interested in treating symptoms than finding the deep, holistic causes, would probably classify as "disturbed."

Unprocessed trauma can show up at all levels of our being: how our body works, how we manage our emotions, how our mind functions, and how we collect our relationships and work.

(a) Emotional parts:

  • states of restlessness, irritability,

  • hostility,

  • tension, anxiety, panic attacks,

  • depressive moods, low moods turning suddenly into elevated moods, manic moods,

  • feelings of guilt and shame,

  • loss of interest in pleasurable things.

(b) Psychological:

  • Intrusive images/memories of the event (flashback),

  • Strong negative beliefs about yourself and the world

  • Brain fog with dissociation, racing thoughts, obsessive thoughts, excessive worry

  • low sense of worth

  • fear of being abandoned

  • resisting positive, constructive change

  • anxious mind - constantly worrying about what might happen next

(c) Relationships:

  • Suspicion and distrust of people,

  • I avoid others, cling to others, and control others.

  • Loneliness

  • No desire for sex, hypersexuality, compulsive masturbation

  • being overly agreeable

  • difficulty saying "no," asserting flexible boundaries

  • boundaries are riding or lacking

  • tolerating abusive cirrcumstances

  • conflict avoidance

  • craving for external validation

(d) Body:

  • Unusual body pain (with no previous injury)

  • Frequent illnesses, mysterious illnesses,

  • Accidents,

  • Restlessness, jumpiness,

  • Self-destructive behavior - cutting, addictions, eating disorders, body dysmorphia.

  • Seeking extreme stimulation - adrenaline highs,

  • Insomnia, nightmares

Observation in the psychotherapeutic process clearly shows us that many of the problems people have on the spectrum of anxiety and depression can be traced to the unconscious and untreated consequences of traumatic events. Much of the emotional distress, mental confusion, and physical breakdown is a pure attempt at regulation due to unhealed trauma that's led to dysregulation of body, mind, and spirit, fulfilling the deep need for organic balance and wholeness.

The effects of trauma on different people are always different. The traces of traumatic events can be evident, but they can also be hidden. Some people are very destructive; in others, there are no harmful effects. The detrimental effects of a traumatic event always depend on several factors. On the age of the person who suffered the trauma and on various other circumstances, especially on whether the source of the trauma was someone we know, especially someone we love and trust. When complex events happen in close relationships, we experience a profound betrayal of Love, and this kind of trauma leaves the most profound consequences. They're worst when the cause of the trauma is a parent or someone to whom the child is attached. Violence by a human being also does more damage than impersonal trauma. For example, only a tiny percentage of people who've experienced a natural disaster - less than 5% - develop long-term symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, while more than 50% of people who've been sexually abused, imprisoned, or tortured.

VII. Get professional help

When I think back to the shock of losing my friend due to suicide, the sequence of events after her unexpected departure, the grief, and the unbearable traces, it still fills my heart with sadness.

Also, in retrospect, knowing how my life changed after her death, I sometimes still ponder: how many decisions and actions were taken that might've had to do with the hidden effects of this trauma after her departure? How many traces have those unprocessed trauma residues left in my LifeLife? And I wasn't even aware of it? What decisions did I make - and could they've turned out differently if the subtle effects of this trauma hadn't influenced my perception and thinking?

Honestly, I don't know. Nobody does. Nearly a decade after her death, I'm left with a dusty book, a few canvases she painted for my daughters and me, and one photo of the two of us together on a body therapy retreat. A fading memory of her crazy, hazelnut beauty is now blended with my surrender that Life turns out the way Life needs, which isn't necessarily what I want.

I'd never again waited so many years to process such a painful event. I waited more than five years before I touched Pandora's box, opened it, and worked on it with energy psychology. I wouldn't recommend the same to anyone.

So, suppose something has happened in your life that's caused you to feel and act significantly different than you did before the event. In that case, that's a sign that there's traumatic energy in your body-mind. There's a high chance it will affect your life if you don't consciously process it. Get professional help.

Also, if an emotional trauma happens to someone you love - or it's happened, and you only recognize the effects - urge them to seek help. Please help them to seek professional help as soon as possible. There's a strong trauma therapy movement developing worldwide. Sometimes the path of trauma healing is quite simple. Sometimes, it's complex and requires a lot of inner work and support from various professionals. Since we can never know how a particular trauma or episode will affect someone, seeking help is essential. We cannot predict how the splinters will behave over time and what areas of our lives will be jeopardized. Traumatic energy, locked in the body, is unpredictable.

It's important to know that self-esteem, the ability to trust other people, and belief in oneself are vital areas where trauma emerges, and that's why it's so hard to seek help when we're traumatized.

We can slip into a black cycle if we're not vigilant enough, and our lives begin to tip. Unprocessed trauma leads to physical illness (e.g., inflammatory processes in the body), severe mental health problems, self-injurious behavior, murders, and suicides. So we must do as much as possible to prevent any further complications of unprocessed trauma and the development of trauma-related conditions in the body and mind.

Experience shows it's worth trusting, trying, and taking the risk to walk the path of inner healing. Trauma can be healed, and there is always a life-oriented way out.

In a nutshell

Trauma work is a courageous, delicate journey of Persephone. No matter what type of trauma we experience - shock trauma, developmental, birth, pre-natal, ancestral, or past life - healing trauma is always a journey into the underground, the land of the lost and the wounded. However, it is also s journey into the promise of rebirth. People always have reasons for staying away from trauma work—many self-regulate with drugs, risky activities, and overwork to sustain body-mind-soul in a minimum balance. The fact is, it can be challenging to get help with trauma in the background. After all, by definition, trauma damages trust in ourselves, in goodness, and in other people. That, and the lack of trauma psychoeducation, is why sometimes we've to make a real effort to make a step. But experience shows it's worth trusting, trying, and taking the risk to walk the path of inner healing; trauma can be healed, and there is always a way out, even though sometimes we need to learn how to live with our losses and make the impossible peace with our wounds. As Nick Cave wrote:

"We are alone, but we are also connected in the personhood of suffering. We have reached out to each other with nothing to offer but an acceptance of our mutual despair. We must understand that the depths of our anguish signal the heights we can, in time, attain. This is an act of extraordinary faith. It makes demands on the vast reserves of inner strength that you may not even be aware of. But they are there."

**Tina Božič is a psychologist and psychotherapist in private practice, a women's issues professional, practicing holistic, energy-based psychotherapy.

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