The deep emotional scars of survival from a traumatic event of terrorism, plague, natural disaster, or war can be devastating to the human soul. Such evil and mass death can cripple the person from properly healing and continuing one’s life story. While Christian grief looks at such events within the prism of God’s love and how his love can shine through the evils of men and the natural sufferings of the world, one cannot elevate this suffering to new heights until the human psyche is healed. Traumatic and complicated grief is the end result in these cases and the person is unable to recover. The natural grief recovery is stifled by the severity of the grief inflicted upon the person. In these cases, grief counseling is only the start. In many cases, professional licensed counselors are called upon to administer grief therapy and supply medication when needed.
A pioneer grief specialist in survivors of traumatic grief is Robert Lifton. Lifton defines a survivor as someone who has faced death and has remained alive. As a survivor who faces death, or mass death, Lifton listed five characteristics. These five characteristics are critical to understanding the nature and mindset of a survivor.
The Five Themes
The first psychological theme is the death print. The death print is the images or memories of the death event. They can cause death anxiety and can be recalled with clarity many years later. Many survivors are haunted by the desire to replay the image of death over and over until they can find a more acceptable outcome.
The second theme is death guilt. Many survivors are tormented by survival guilt. This guilt manifests from the fact that others died and they did not. This is especially the case with parents who may lose a child. In other cases, death guilt can also manifest due to lack of proper performance in stressful situations. Some people will feel extreme guilt because they did not do this or that and due to inability failed to save someone.
The third theme is psychic numbing which can accompany chronic depression. Due to this phenomenon, someone’s crucial components of self are disassociated with the ego. This numbing in some cases is a self defense mechanism. Recovery from this involves intensive therapy to feel again.
The fourth theme according to Lifton is “suspicion of counterfeit nurturance”. This deals with the feelings that survivors have with interpersonal relationships. For the most part it manifests when survivors are reluctant to receive support because they refuse to admit to the damage the trauma has caused his or her soul.
The final theme is formulation. This is the struggle the survivor has to find meaning out of life after a traumatic ordeal . How does the traumatic event fit into the life story of the person? How does the person bridge the past to the future?
These five common themes of survivors are all elements a grief counselor will have to deal with as they rebuild the psyche of a person who has experienced a traumatic event of any type. In the end, the essential task of a survivor is to find meaning of the trauma and connect the loss to their life story. One must find a way to assert continuity of life while remaining true to the past traumatic event. After indentifying these themes in a person who has experienced traumatic grief, a counselor needs to work on each aspect and gradually rebuild the person and open the door to creating and reconstructing
meaning in the person’s life. We will in future blogs review this process, but it is important to note, a Christian counselor of griefshould also integrate the sufferings of Christ and point to Christ as a paradigm. Christ’s suffering ultimately is the most traumatic event in human history. One must unify his or her suffering under his cross to finally rise from the ashes as Christ did. Through hope in Christ, all wounds can be healed, even the most traumatic.
Please review the Christian Grief Counseling Program