Sunday, June 22, 2014

Everyday Trauma


Today I attended the reception to honor this year’s high school grads who received scholarships from the Elena Castaňeda Memorial Scholarship Fund that I created seven years ago when my dear Elena was struck and killed by a truck while biking to work in Oakland. (Although I started the scholarship, it is now managed by the scholarship committee and administered through the Latina Family Foundation. I no longer do any of the work.) The scholarship is given to students who speak Spanish as their first language and who will attend college in the fall. It always takes me by surprise when I have moments in which I feel the loss of Elena as if she died today. Most of the time I am used to the loss. But there are moments.

This time of year is bittersweet for me. While I love the beginning of my gardens, with the first fruits ripening (this week I picked my first plums, zucchini, and basil), it is also the time of year when my mother passed away. Her yahrzeit (annual Jewish memorial date) is next week. I sometimes miss her more now than when she first passed away. I think I am pacing myself to live the rest of my life without her. There have been so many family events from which she has been conspicuously absent in the nine years since we lost her. As we prepare for my son’s wedding this fall, I recall the preparations for my brother’s wedding nearly 20 years ago and how Mom enjoyed buying clothes for my children to wear. She would have loved my son’s fiancée and her family. She would have enjoyed making suggestions for details of the event. I believe spirit does not disappear (as you know if you read my novel), that Mom’s spirit continues in ways beyond my limited comprehension. It is some consolation, but no substitute for the delight of seeing Mom’s joy while watching my son marry the love of his life. However, I am a resilient person. I can accept loss and move forward. I can take great delight in seeing Dad watch my son marry the love of his life; and feel grateful that Dad is still hale and hearty, very much present.

Others are not so lucky. Others have suffered much deeper trauma than I. Others have suffered enormous losses in their war-torn home countries and violent inner city communities in the U.S. The latest trend in federal grants (which I write daily) is to ask applicants to describe how the services they will provide are trauma-informed. How will their program address the experience of underlying trauma that causes children to misbehave in school, teenagers to shoot each other, families to wind up living on the streets and in homeless shelters, and people to have a mental breakdown and become non-functional? I see some of these people out on the street, looking lost, rummaging through trash cans, talking to themselves, uncombed, bad skin, so unhealthy, so distressed. My mother, who was a psychiatric social worker, would have known how to help them begin to recover. I know nothing to do or say that will help.

Mom would have loved all the latest research about what works to help people recover from trauma. Therapists now know that we manifest trauma in our bodies and that somatic therapies have powerful healing ability. I am learning in my nutrition studies about how trauma contributes to an individual’s total “toxic load.” I am learning about medication-free ways to help the body handle the ongoing stress of processing trauma through nutrition, of how to help the body begin to heal itself and detox from the ill effects of trauma, to remove the toxicity of trauma from the blood and the brain and the nervous system.

All that said, here is the thing that I am really pondering today:  while some of us have suffered serious deep trauma, all of us are suffering from the overarching trauma of life. We never stop mourning for those we have lost, and all of us have lost someone(s). That’s my point; that trauma is part of life. Setting aside the trauma of those who have suffered extraordinary losses, and without belittling that in any way, I want to recognize that all of us are traumatized. All of us are survivors. Some of us more resilient in continuing with our lives than others. Because trauma never really goes away. It changes, maybe. We find ways to let go. We find ways to cope. We find ways to restore balance and health. Yet we continue to grieve on some level. Trauma is in the background of our everyday lives. The trauma of being alive contributes to the poignancy of cherishing the fleeting moment.

Trauma does not belong entirely to those in war zones and regions that have experienced natural disasters. It belongs to all of us. At every given moment we are carrying with us the trauma of past losses and experiences as well as the trauma of anticipation of future losses, the fear of what awaits in the due course of our lives. It is what philosophers and theologians refer to as “the human condition.” So I don’t think it is incumbent upon us to “recover,” but more to find ways to maintain balance and health in our lives. I will never stop grieving for Mom or stop missing her, but I will honor her memory and include her in my thoughts as I continue for all the years ahead without her. I will take her to my son’s wedding in my heart. 

Mom adjusting Yael's dress when she tried it on in preparation for my brother Dan's wedding. 
Mom and Yael bought it together on a shopping trip. And the gloves. 
Those two loved to shop together.

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