Moving from Grief & Loss, and from Trauma to Triumph: Plastic Smiles and Looking Pretty
You Look Pretty
I opened my eyes and realized that it was 6 am. I had allowed myself a few hours of sleep between 3 am and 6 am and yes, I felt guilty for closing my eyes even briefly. My role as wife to the man I married and loved for years now needed me to be his caregiver. I looked outside and saw what appeared to be normalcy for everyone else, but in my house, although there were children present, it was complete silence. It was like an evil daily vigil...I don’t wake them, instead, I walked to the doorway of the room where my husband slept. I would wait at the door and watch for the rise and fall of his chest.
Is there a breath?
Will he open his eyes today?
Or will I have to face his death?
I had to endure the impending reality that I was watching him pass away...slowly....daily. Most days I would sit next to him and watch him with mixtures of love, fear, grief, and anger all at once. The lively and active man that was Active Duty Navy and a leader in government - both careers which constantly took him away from us - was finally home. However, this time he could not enjoy us or even fill us with anything. The cancer was winning the battle and I hated the whole thought of it. How could it be? I eventually got to a point where I was finished with asking ‘why?’ but resolved to wonder when?
I had wondered, “when was he going to finally leave us - for good?” Our life was filled with goodbyes, some sweet and some bitter. I resented his commitment to everything else, only to realize he was gone so much so that he could provide the life that would give me the ability to stay at home, if I chose, along with all the perks. Now, I was angry at me too for not realizing that his love was one of providing and not of presence.
In November of 2015, he took his final journey with a bittersweet farewell. His last words to me were, ”you look pretty.” The truth was, I did look pretty. My husband needed to see me look as normal as possible. On that last day, I put on a good front with nice clothes, hair, perfume, and red lipstick. I faked my way through it, but inside my soul was so broken. It was a big charade. There was nothing pretty about what I felt with the whole in my heart and the anguish of the sound of my children screaming in my head. It is sound that will haunt me for the rest of my life. I looked pretty to help him transition, he needed to see me as an assurance that I will be okay. I was anything but okay.
Living through the trauma associated with grief is a unique experience for each person. By definition, trauma is essentially an emotional response to a distressing event. Grief is correlated with trauma. I experienced what is known as Complicated Grief, meaning the loss is debilitating and distressful even after several months or years. There is also a process of grief known as the Stages of Grief which includes:
My process was a complex mixture of sadness, anger, raging, depression and “plastic smiling” my way through the process. Sadly, I watched my adolescent twins go through the same jigsaw maze of emotions - anger, sadness, acting out, and fighting with each other while getting good grades and faking happiness with their friends.
From Trauma to Triumph
All species grieve and all can heal as well. My journey is a continuous one. However, I find peace and healing by working with others in processing their pain. I meet weekly with individuals, groups, and families that all need help. Through my work as a public speaker and licensed Psychotherapist with a specialty in grief, stress, and trauma, my pain has purpose. Yes, I am a widow, but not in an ordinary sense. My current status is that of a survivor of loss, trauma, and grief. While I navigate the new journey, I devote myself to aiding others in several capacities.
My advice to others is to first and foremost, locate a trusted therapist to guide you in the healing process. A second step is to allow yourself time and patience. Nurture yourself, and don’t rush the process. Lastly, finding your passion and source of joy in whatever form that works for you. Each day of the journey brings the needed change to move along from pain, trauma, grief, and loss to triumph.
By Dr. Sarah Williams, LPC, NCC
Dr. Sarah Williams is a licensed Psychotherapist, Host and creator of Dr. Sarah After Dark, a mental health awareness television show, and owner of Covenant Way Clinical Counseling, a private counseling practice in Virginia. She also speaks o large groups, facilitates workshops, and offers consultations to those grieving.