Trisha is 27-years old, married, no children. Fifteen months ago, she suffered a miscarriage while pregnant for the first time. She was devastated as only women who have had a similar experience can understand. She was in counseling for a couple of months, and eventually joined a support group of women who also experienced miscarriage.
“The problem is,” she says, “I have been in the group for 11 months. The girls are great and give me a lot of support, but whenever I tell my story, like when a new member joins, I break down and cry like it happened yesterday. It’s been over a year and I’m still a mess sometimes. I don’t know why I can’t get over this.”
People usually go into counseling or other types of support programs expecting positive results within a reasonable period of time. The problem is, what is a “reasonable time” is not etched in stone. After more than a year in treatment, should Trisha be able to relate her story without crying? Another question clients often ask is, “What actions mean I’m not coping well with my trauma?” Is Trisha’s crying, for instance, a sign of poor recovery? Should she be able to relate her story calmly and objectively to consider herself on the road to recovery?
Trying to answer these questions “yes” or “no” is difficult because the answers are usually, “It depends.” People come to recovery with different experiences, current circumstances, perceptions, attitudes, expectations, biological sensitivities, and genetics, and any one of those factors can influence recovery time and post-trauma behavior.
Trisha, for instance, may be a histrionic, emotional type who dramatizes events. Note that when she criticizes herself for being too emotional, she is focusing on her emotions as bad things, and not on them as a natural part of who she is. Instead of letting her crying suggest to her that she is a failure and not coping well with her experience, Trisha might say something like this before telling her story: “Please understand that I’m an emotional person and it’s always hard for me to talk about it. I may start crying. But that’s OK, because all of us here understand the pain, and we focus on that understanding, not on how we express our pain.”
“I need to focus on understanding my pain, not on how I express it.” That’s where Trisha should be 15 months after her experience.
When recovering from trauma – or dealing with other types of stress – don’t let self-criticism and self-absorption become part of your coping plan. Rather, accept who you are, be accountable for how you express yourself, and let communication with – and listening to – others guide you in your recovery.
I talked once with a marine who was in his 80s. As he told me he “island hopped” during WWII, he paused at one point to wipe away a tear, then said, “Lost a lot of buddies over there.” More than 50 years after his trauma, he still shed a tear, not because he was unable to cope with the memory, but because the memory was a part of him, and a tear was how he expressed the memory.
Trisha need not be concerned that she still gets emotional over a year after her trauma. Maybe one day she will be able to talk about it without crying, maybe not. That’s really not the coping issue. Of more importance is how Trisha answers questions like: “Does the memory of the event continue to generate emotions that interfere with your day-to-day living?” “Does the memory make you feel guilty, believing the event was your fault?” “Is the event straining your marriage because you are afraid to get pregnant again?”
Perhaps most important is how Trisha would answer a question like this: “Are you so wrapped up in your experience – in your needs and emotions – that you are unable to feel empathy for the others in your group?” Trisha will not resolve her issues without that empathy for others, because that empathy will show her that she is not alone in her struggle. Trisha may cry, but that’s not necessarily a sign that she is coping poorly. If she has reached an empathetic understanding of the pain others in her group are experiencing, she is well on the road to recovery because she can offer help to – and receive help from – the others in her group.