The holiday season has drawn to a close, and for many, it has left memories of fun celebrations, gatherings with friends and family, and reminders of unconditional love and support. The sad reality remains, however, that for some the holiday season instead represented a time of somber reflection on past trauma. And as individuals seek to navigate their pain and suffering, they often turn to close friends and family for support.
Regardless of whether or not friends and family are familiar to the type of trauma in question, more often than not, it is within our nature to try and “cheer the person up.” The intent here, of course, is noble and genuine. But it is not without unintended consequences.
Perhaps of most importance to note is that even when two individuals experience nearly identical forms of trauma, their reactions (and subsequent coping) to such trauma will vary considerably. In short, no two people cope with pain and suffering the same way. And for this reason, there is no one piece of universal “advice” that can just turn the internalized consequences of trauma “off.”
It is of no surprise that in the therapy room, I have seen a significant number of clients who have reported feelings of anger or frustration toward their primary support system. Their stories are very similar to each other. They attempt to seek solace from their friends and family, and are met with almost universal responses: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger;” “It’s all a part of God’s plan;” “You’ll learn so much from this;” etc.
It should be noted that there is good intention behind such statements. However, to a person who is still recovering from the pain of trauma, such statements can come across as highly insensitive attempts to minimize and trivialize their suffering. At best, these statements have the unintended consequence of discounting the deep-rooted, often long-term emotional and psychological damage that is left in trauma’s wake.
I fully understand that as supportive friends and family, we hate to see our loved ones experience pain. However, in our efforts to eliminate their pain as quickly as possible through our words, we can forget that sometimes the experience of pain is a necessary precursor to the recognition of healing. Suffering should never be perceived as a necessary prerequisite for learning resilience. Sometimes, there are no lessons to be learned, there are no bigger pictures to grasp, and there is no silver lining. Sometimes, trauma just happens to those who least deserve it. And sometimes, you just have to let someone be angry at everything around them, even at whatever God to whom they pray.
There is eventually healing, but no one can dictate the nature and duration of that healing process. The best we can really do is to simply let the person know that the road towards healing is full of exponential leaps forward and backwards, and though they may stumble and take their time navigating that road, we will always be there when needed, and never abandon them on that journey.