How Trauma and Loss Can Create a More Spacious Form of Spiritual Awareness
by Terri Daniel
Most people, when faced with trauma and loss, will search for a way to understand the event based on familiar cultural or religious assumptions, and their reactions can vary widely from embracing religious ideas more fervently to abandoning spirituality altogether. Because trauma, grief and loss can fracture one's beliefs about good and evil, the nature of God and one's place in the universe, re-evaluating these beliefs can either cause bitterness or offer tremendous personal growth.
Anybody who's ever cared for an infant or toddler knows that a developing infant sees itself as the center of the universe, and begins life with a sense that the world is made up of "me objects." Ryan LaMothe, in his article, Trauma and Development: A Faith Perspective
explains that as a child matures, he begins to recognize a world of "not me" objects, and this shift is fraught with anxiety. As he begins to experience the less secure world of "not-me" objects, he discovers that an all-knowing "parent/protector" cannot be relied upon to provide security. LeMothe equates this conflict to a spiritual belief in omnipotence, or a supernatural "parent" that is supposed to provide this type of security and protection. These beliefs cannot help but be shattered by traumatic or negative experiences.
A psychological trauma disrupts the belief that that there is order, safety and continuity in life. When trauma survivors with deeply-held religious beliefs discover that the protective mother could not keep them from harm, many experience a "crisis of faith." If faith is defined by a belief that God rewards us for piousness by protecting us from harm, then that faith will certainly be challenged when harm occurs. Those who see God as a protector may feel deceived or punished, while someone with a different spiritual outlook may see the same experience as an opportunity to become more connected to the Divine, to overcome ego-attachments, or to re-evaluate their values and purpose in the world.
As freethinking human beings, we have a choice as to how we perceive an experience or event. Bereaved parent Mark Ireland wrote about his young son's death in his book, Soul Shift, "I could feed it my grief and pain or I could feed it my wonder and faith. Once I changed my outlook, I realized that my loss was not a meaningless accident. I woke up to a greater potential and gained a reference point from which I could contribute to the universe in new ways."
Ireland's statements express a redefinition of attachment in response to grief. When positive aspects of the lost relationship can be integrated into the bereaved person's life, the event can be viewed with tenderness rather than pain, and with spiritual openness rather than spiritual confusion. Bereaved individuals are constantly being advised by well-meaning friends to "let go." But what if we don't have to let go? What if we could just re-define our attachment and allow the relationship to take a new form? This can also be true for our beliefs and religious ideals.
There is no more transformative experience in human life than trauma or tragic loss. It may change us physically due to illness or injury, it may annihilate our sense of security, or rob us of relationships, habits and beliefs that made the world safe and logical. It may also wake us up, shake us loose, move us forward and cause us to think more clearly and more deeply than ever before.
Regardless of religious beliefs or affiliations, when faced with trauma or grief, we find ourselves at a crossroads where there are unlimited options, including a bitter rejection of spirituality. But we can also choose to allow the life-altering event to integrate with our personalities, alter our perspectives and help us to focus less on what happened, and more on why it happened and the valuable lessons gained.
1 LeMothe, p. 375 - LaMothe, Ryan. "Trauma and Development: A Faith Perspective." Pastoral Psychology 47, No. 5 (1999): 373-388.
2 Van der Kolk (1987, qtd. in Grame) Grame, Carolyn J., et al. "Addressing spiritual and religious issues of clients with a history of psychological trauma." Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic 63.2 (1999): 223.
ABOUT TERRI DANIEL
Terri Daniel is an author, hospice worker and afterlife awareness educator who teaches a metaphysical perspective on birth, death and the afterlife. She be a workshop presenter at the First Annual Afterlife Awareness Conference in Phoenix, AZ. April 29 - May 1, 2011. More about Terri can be found at www.AfterlifeAwareness.com