Structure for Experiences of Trauma

This pamphlet addresses the concept of structure as it relates to the loss resolution process and the special importance of that structure to the TRT experience. The pamphlet is reprinted from our text for counselors. The pamphlet number is:


This material is for TRT participants. It also provides family members and friends information about the TRT program so that their support for the participant may be enhanced. The TRT Educational Program, including this material, is not intended for general interest reading. It is not a solicitation to engage in TRT. Neither is it authorization to provide TRT to anyone. TRT is authorized for use only under the supervision and facilitation of a Certified TRT Counselor. The authors of TR T, and or their designates, are the TRT certifying authority.

Structure for Current Experiences of Trauma

Our society now treats psychological trauma much differently and with far more positive results than it did only a few years ago. At the heart of this change has been the linkage of trauma to the loss resolution process, as well as a shift in our understanding of how grief is resolved most effectively. No longer do we think of grief as an issue of individual responsibility. Rather, we have begun to recognize that for loss to be reconciled, participation of others through special ways of interacting is needed. We view these special communication methods and their associated ideas, rules and perspectives as forming an intangible but nevertheless important supportive structure for collective problem solving. The essential purpose of this structure is to assist those persons in our society who have been affected by trauma to negotiate the various natural passages that lead to loss resolution.

One of the most visible examples of how this structure is forming is the media’s new way of handling trauma. When a disaster occurs, the reporting of it as a news event now requires recognition of shock and dissociation as fundamental components of the natural emotional process. In addition, the story is usually told in a way that considers the trauma’s effect on the viewing audience. Seldom today do we see people recently affected by trauma being interviewed by someone demanding to know the facts of what happened without consideration for the victim’s emotional experience. Instead, we increasingly hear and see shared feelings followed by the reporter’s interpretation of the victim’s passage through the grieving process. Some media professionals with broader audiences even appear at times to be facilitating the emotions existing between those experiencing the trauma directly and the indirectly affected audience. If this is indeed happening, then we are watching the beginning of a national communication system that no longer simply reacts to trauma but also functions as a positive component of the collective loss-resolution process. Such a system becomes an important part of the structure needed to resolve loss as it happens instead of leaving it to the unconscious as we did in the past.

Probably the clearest single demonstration of how this new structure works came in January 1986. The nation, watching the shuttle Challenger’s ascent on live television, was catapulted into disbelief and disorientation when the rockets carrying the space ship exploded. Gradually, we realized that our astronauts were lost. As the families and coworkers of those seven people began the grieving process, we participated. Much of the loss felt by differing individuals and organizations from around the country was reflected and shared via the media through group and personal mourning. Special care was given to the children who witnessed the explosion. Most of the attention focused on how different helping professionals and teachers lessened the harmful effects by discussing with the children their experiences of the tragedy. The now more sensitive media no longer maintained tough and objective reporting perspectives. The task of finding who or what was responsible for the tragedy, although apriority, took a back seat to the primary job of processing the nation’s experience of shared loss. The old images of reporters relating through professional distance and control were being replaced with the commentators’ expressions of their own shock and deep sadness. Their human pain, reflected honestly, helped strengthen the structure of collective interaction that allowed the initial grief to run its necessary course. The result was that many of us shared their pain and consequently were aided in experiencing our own feelings of hurt, anger, sadness and loss.

This understanding of the process of grief is not limited to loss that occurs in the country’s public arena. Subjects that only a few years ago were too difficult or frightening to discuss have become the focus of a new and much broader understanding. Child and elder abuse and other family violence are now seen as demanding immediate attention. Our culture, through its industry and its social and helping services in concert with the media, is beginning to provide comfort, love and understanding, sharing the pain of the victims so that the trauma may not have such a long-lasting and debilitating impact. The willingness to be open and to discuss such painful issues helps build the structure that allows those directly affected to grieve their experiences.

Both the media and the public are declaring that we now have the tolerance to look squarely at any tragedy. We share daily the farmer’s loss of his business and lifestyle, the death of a child to drunk driving, our feelings of futility in response to mass murder committed through insanity and the loss of the best that we have to drugs. Emotional experiences are no longer seen as secondary issues. They are viewed as primarily important, as they provide the basis through which we identify with and then care for each other. The result is that loss does not have to be collectively repressed, nor will it be as frequently extended into an unresolved state that interferes with the thoughtful decisions required to change our situations. As these changes come about, the developing structure is strengthened further through a natural acceptance of the importance of meeting the experiential as well as the rational needs of man.

Structure for Past Experiences of Trauma

Trauma that has occurred in the past is not yet so readily understood, however. The process has always been depicted in our drama and art but had not, until this century, been one that was studied and recognized as fundamental to our way of being. In addition, the fundamental underpinning of trauma, loss, was not as clearly delineated as a process until the 1960s. Consequently, much of the destruction affecting many members of our society only a short time ago was ignored for want of understanding or an appropriate way to respond. The problem was compounded as time passed and the events that had caused the injuries were forgotten. Trauma victims from that era became what many people see as our personality problems of today. Because the new problems make the trauma of the past less visible, our tendency is to not relate the understanding we have of loss today to those past experiences. To make matters worse, because considerable time has passed, many trauma victims and observers believe the trauma should be over. If it is not, then they tend to think something was wrong with the victim before the trauma-causing events occurred.

As care is reflected more clearly through the media for individuals and groups experiencing traumatic events of today, those people with similar but encapsulated hurt from the past are beginning to understand what happened to them. At the same time, they are seeing what they needed in that past period to reconcile their experience and so prevent the years of hurt, confusion and additional victimization that followed. Therapies that assist in this process are naturally developing. Foremost in this development is the understanding that for these special people, the simple grief or loss resolution that is being provided for those experiencing trauma of today is, by itself, not enough. What is needed for the undoing of past pain is not only a structure that is amenable to grief resolution, but also one that can assist the individual in returning to the event that brought about the trauma in the first place. When the person revisits that time, the structure must continue to be strong enough to allow past losses to be grieved as if they were cur- rent experiences. This means that the process must prevent interference from the confusion, chaos and illusion that have plagued previous attempts at solution. Providing such a structure is the primary function of TRT.

Structure and TRT

An analogy that we use to represent the use of structure in TRT is a story that depicts the attempts to rescue an infant. While a family was on an outing, one of the children, a small boy, crawled to an opening in the ground that was not clearly marked for its prospective danger. He fell into a narrow shaft that led to a mine deep within the earth. During the first attempts to reach the boy, the shaft began to crumble, threatening to cover him and kill him. Other tunnels were dug at different angles into the earth in directions calculated to reach the place his rescuers thought the boy lay. However, these attempts failed because the estimates were wrong.

Meanwhile, another approach was initiated through the original shaft. This time, however, the hole was carefully and patiently widened, and the new walls were supported with scaffolding made of pipe, steel and lumber. As the scaffold reached into the earth toward the baby, dirt, sand, gravel and mud periodically poured through the supporting structure, hampering the rescue team’s efforts. The team members proficiently and tenaciously restrained the debris so that it would not hamper their access to the child. Almost 48 hours after the infant had fallen into the shaft, the advance contingent of the team reached the place where he lay. He was alive, having managed to survive in a small pocket of air. He was lifted from the fearsome place where he had lain for many hours and carried up through the protected, reinforced tunnel to safety.

Unresolved loss is contained much like the pocket of air in which the child had curled for protection. However, instead of the loss’s being buried in the ground, it lies in the depths of the human reality system. The tunnel and scaffolding that journey into the earth directly to the pocket of air are the human perspectives, methods and interactions comprising the structured loss- resolution process. The sand, gravel, rock, dirt and mud that threaten resolution are the self-blaming, illusions of control and other representations of survival that in actuality try to prevent the uncovering and resuscitation of that original life. The infant is that part of ourselves that was lost when the tragedy occurred.

If that child is to be regained or that lost life found, the tunnel that searches for the loss must be directed by a profound sense of truth hallmarked by consistency, congruency, connectedness and understanding. Just as importantly, the scaffolding must be strong enough to withstand and then countervail the full force of the power of illusion. Such has been our observations of the special strengths and ability of TRT.

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