learnings from counselling – it’s called trauma

2020 was a year of unprecedented change and challenge for many. (And also the highest ever recording of over-used terms like unprecedented.) So much was disrupted and there was an incredible amount of grief and loss experienced by people in various ways and to differing degrees. All of this at a time when many of our regular mechanisms for processing grief and loss were unavailable – which only served to cause more grief and loss. In fact, experts are predicting a grief bubble is still to burst as people come out from under the immediate threat and the need to ‘just keep going’ and start to feel the full extent of the losses they’ve experienced.

In May-June I experienced a specific (non-Covid related) life event that was devastating for me – personally, ‘professionally’ and relationally. Living alone and in various stages of lock down and restrictions meant it was a particularly bad time to face something so deeply impacting. I needed my huggers and my ‘bucket holders’ (you know, the ones who can handle the messiness while you word-vomit all the things that are clogging up your brain and heart). And also, the nature of the event meant there were sensitivities around who was able to know what I knew or who would be adversely impacted by what I would share – therefore caution was required.

So you just soldier on, right? It wasn’t good, it hurt, I felt disappointed (and all manner of other feelings) but there was work to show up for and things still to be done and people experiencing far more dramatic and challenging life circumstances than mine.

So you just soldier on.

By November the world around me was starting to open up again – shops and restaurants were functioning, the “ring of steel” around metropolitan Melbourne was opening up visitation to and with my family, work was readjusting and churches were starting to gather in person again. But I found myself feeling stuck.

I was struggling to get excited about social outings (yes, me!), feeling the affects of not having a home-church community, experiencing anxiety when I went out in public spaces, fearing or avoiding interactions and conversations, crying too much, sleeping poorly, reliving negative encounters in my head and rehearsing potential future ones. Stuck. It was an unfamiliar and decidedly unenjoyable place to be.

I thought about counselling. I’d never done that before. I thought about it out loud to a friend and the energy behind their response was strongly positive.

A friend once said “If anyone ever offers you a breath mint – take it!” You never know if they’re just generous sharers or are offering it to you for a reason! I think the same is true for friends or family who are enthusiastic about you going to counselling! 🙂 So I booked myself in.

When I sat down for the first session my counselor asked me why I was there. I bumbled my way through a brief summary of the event/s that happened and the various and numerous ways I’d been impacted. I shared how I was embarrassed by the way I was (or wasn’t) coping with it now – some six months later. And the counselor interrupted me.

“It’s called trauma!”

What you have experienced (and are now experiencing the ongoing affects of) is trauma.

Broadly defined, trauma is the response to events that are distressing or disturbing. There’s not really objective criteria for determining which events will cause trauma response. In fact, two people can respond differently to a shared experience. Trauma might evidence itself through flashbacks or intrusive memories, somatic or physiological symptoms (such as those responses associated with the “fight, flight or freeze” mechanisms, brain fog, increased heartrate, feeling hot or cold, gastrointestinal problems, headaches etc), negative thoughts or feelings, general changes in arousal responses, insomnia or oversleeping, emotional dysregulation, substance abuse, anxiety, or depression.

There’s also the phenomenon of ‘vicarious trauma’ which is experienced by those in helping roles or professions. Where, over time, the continued exposure to others’ stories and experiences of trauma builds up to overwhelm a person’s ability to cope themselves – impacting their own physical and emotional wellbeing.

To varying degrees, we all face “distressing and disturbing” events regularly. If we are emotionally healthy and functioning within our own range of normal, we are able to adjust and adapt to circumstances around us with reasonable agility and resilience. Bigger events of loss, threat, conflict or uncertainty move us to the edges of our capacity to cope and the longer we hang out at those edges the more likely we are to start experiencing and exhibiting the above symptoms of trauma.

It turns out, that ‘soldiering on’ probably wasn’t my best strategy. In fact, pushing past emotions and feelings was probably doing more to exacerbate the trauma impact on my physical and emotional wellbeing. Prolonging its disruption to my life and perpetuating unhelpful coping strategies (or avoidances) rather than naming and owning my experiences so they could be more appropriately processed.

“Give yourself a break.” was the basic learning from session one. Acknowledge your trauma, give yourself permission to not be ok … then we can start to work on healing and recovery.

miscarriage – a unique grief


If you’ve ever had a miscarriage, or intimately known someone who has, you’ll know it brings a unique type of grief. 

Discovering you’re pregnant is a giddying experience. The combination of hormones and hope; anticipation and mild panic brings a range of emotions and there’s a sudden rush to a reimagining of your future from that moment forward. In 9 months I’ll be a mother, in 6 years I’ll be a school mum, in 14 years I’ll have a teenager, in 20+ years I might have raised the next Prime Minister or the scientist who’ll cure cancer or a heart that will embrace the broken and the marginalised; or my best friend. 

The early stages of pregnancy do strange things to your body – growing a tiny human will do that. For me, it meant nausea that reduced my appetite – turning me into a perpetual grazer and a weariness that settled on me and wouldn’t shake no matter how much I rested or slept. 

The news of a miscarriage is so clinical. It’s just a black blob on the ultrasound. The potential for life has ended. Almost as quickly as possibility has been conceived it is dead. The whiplash of emotions can be profound. (read more here)

If you listen to the stories of miscarriage the grief is often marked by an isolation or loneliness. So often both the pregnancy and miscarriage happen even before an announcement is made and so it is intensely private. Many times the celebrations and excitement have been held within a tight circle of family and friends – heeding popular advice to wait until the first trimester is reached and the chances of the pregnancy reaching full term become greater. But these things can contribute to others not engaging as personally in the loss when they haven’t had opportunity to connect with the joy and potential. 

For some, like me, the oft assured temporary ‘set back’ of loss – waiting for new timing, second chances – turns into long term childlessness. The miscarriage becomes a brief flirtation with the experience of parenthood. A promise whispered, but silenced. 

For others who are fortunate to conceive again and meet their little one – the grief mingles strangely with joy. Perhaps due dates are forgotten as birth dates get celebrated. Perhaps there is a struggle to hold the public celebration of new life in tension with the seeming disregard for lost life. One so much more tangible than the other. 

When I reflect on my own journey and hear the stories of others’ I am struck by the common thread of unspoken or forgotten grief. I am constantly surprised by the eagerness to share their experience, to speak of the loss, to name their expectations, to recall the deep sadness; to question and doubt. So many words waiting to find ears and hearts to land on. 

So I’m led again to share these thoughts and ponderings. Maybe they spark a familiar feeling. Maybe they serve as an invitation. Maybe they touch an ache harboured deeply in a heart. Maybe they serve as unknowing preparation. Maybe they help. 

Drawer of Dreams 

There’s a drawer at the bottom of my side table that I haven’t opened in years … but I know its contents by heart. 

There are several white newborn-sized onesies. A rattle in the shape of a plush teddy from my mum. Six pairs of tiny white socks. Two bibs, one grow suit, a calendar, a book of poetry and the book “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”. 

I was at the doctors for a routine check up – over 13 years ago – when I off-handedly mentioned some symptoms I’d been experiencing; nausea, breast tenderness and fatigue. Trying desperately to contain her mocking, the doctor patiently joined the dots for me. She suggested a urine test which revealed I was pregnant. 

Only just. But just enough. 

I know it’s not commonly considered prudent to tell anyone too early but I excitedly shared the news with my family. Later that week while spending time with my mum, we couldn’t resist popping into a couple of stores. We excitedly made our clandestine purchases and the secret stash was hidden away … just as those little cells were hidden in my body and already growing in my heart. 

A week later I experienced some “spotting”. An ultrasound revealed normal growth for the stage we were at but it was too early for a heartbeat to be detected. I was told to come back a week later and I lay on the sonographer’s table with excited anticipation …only to be brusquely told that the baby had not grown beyond the small sack that was evident the week before. 

“There’s nothing there.” 

That’s exactly what he said. 

“There’s nothing there.”

Two weeks later as I lay on a hospital gurney in recovery, the first thing I did as I came out from under the anaesthesic was to touch my hand to my stomach. It felt hollow and empty. I wept. There really was nothing there. 

So now those items lie hidden in my drawer. Rarely touched. Not required. 

I don’t know what to do with them. 

Initially I couldn’t much bear to look at them. Then they moved in my mind to “just waiting”. Waiting for God’s timing. For second chances. But my status has changed and many years have passed.

Sometimes I’ve wondered about giving them to someone else. A close friend who is pregnant; a welcome gift for a precious new bundle. But I hesitate – would that be weird? 

Maybe I should box them up: squirrel them away in a dusty corner of my garage? I’m not sure how I’d feel to come across them again some day in the future. And besides, what would I do with them then?

But can I just throw them out? What does that mean? It seems such a waste. It seems so …resigned. 

It feels like these physical things and the conundrum of what to do with them are a metaphor for the dreams they represent. 

What do I do with the desire to have a husband and a baby? What does “waiting on God” look like? When is it time to “throw out” the dream? When should I, and indeed how do I, give up the hope or grieve the loss? 

It is hard to want something so badly that is so far out of reach or my own control. It’s hard to hold in tension a complete surrender to God’s perfect will and plans with a perfectly natural desire and, for me, a deeply held hope. 

I guess it’s ok to have the little drawer of things – out of sight, largely out of mind – it’s not a “shrine”; it isn’t in the way of anything else. And I wonder if that’s not the same way God would have me hold the dream itself? Tucked away in a little part of my heart and mind – not consuming or impeding; not stopping me from embracing the fullness of the plans and purposes He might have for me aside from the gift of my own family. 

“12 thoughts of Christmas” #6: Things are Different Now

Like millions of others, my heart has broken watching the news reports and hearing the stories out of the horrific school shooting in Connecticut, USA. Amongst many other things I’ve processed in the wake of this tragic event, I have found myself thinking about what Christmas will look like for those families. My heart and mind can’t really wrap themselves around all that would be impacted by such trauma and such intense grief and loss.

The reality for many families is that Christmas could look a lot different for you this year than it did last year. You may have moved house or town. You might have experienced loss through the death of a family member or friend. You might have aged parents who are now in care, a sick loved one who is hospital bound, relatives that are overseas or interstate, a relationship that has ended. So much could be different about this Christmas – and if that’s the case for you, it’s a good idea to identify that and process it in intentional and inclusive ways.

People will react to change in a whole raft of different ways. It depends on personality, resilience, emotional maturity, levels of support (perceived or real) and all manner of other factors. Children will also react to change in unique ways but are often impeded in their processing by their capacity to identify and articulate emotions, feelings, fears or thoughts. Some suggestions for self-reflection and/or discussion.

  • Consider what has changed in your family since last Christmas and acknowledge that together. Even if something changed 11 ½ months ago, it may still alter the landscape of your Christmas gathering.
  • Discuss the part that person or situation played in the way you celebrated Christmas last year. Perhaps you had cousins spend the day with you that are now living interstate and won’t be here. Or maybe you lived in a different house that lent itself to certain decorations or activities. Maybe someone who has passed away had a special job at Christmas – they manned the BBQ or handed out the presents, they brought the fruit salad or they led the family Carol singing session.
  • Make a plan for how you will handle that particular difference. Decide in advance who will take on the role or how you will change your celebrations to cope without it being done. Communicate the plan clearly with all who are impacted.
  • Identify the emotions that are attached to the change. Obvious ones would include sadness and grief – but there could be anger, guilt, loneliness, fear, insecurity, hopelessness etc – possibly even relief or happiness. Giving permission for people to feel what they are feeling is a gift that can often bring great release and healing.
  • Be intentional about honouring what HAS been whilst celebrating all that is. New situations, new friends and family to celebrate with, new physical environments all lend themselves to exciting opportunities to add new traditions and memories to your Christmas gathering.
  • Remember that while much may have changed in your life, God has not! He is the same God yesterday, today and forever. He sees everything, knows everything, is not surprised by anything and offers us infinite love, grace and compassion as we process our way through a broken world. Immanuel – God is with us!