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Attachment Trauma: Why you must learn to grieve

Updated: Jun 22

"Grieving is necessary to help us release and work through our pain about the terrible losses of our childhoods. These losses are like deaths of parts of our selves, and grieving can often initiate their rebirth." ~ Pete Walker, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving
"Any movement toward wholeness begins with the acknowledgment of our own suffering, and of the suffering in the world."~ Gabor Maté, Myth of Normal



Survivors of attachment trauma hold in their bodies the painful stories of loss. These stories are not just memories, they are powerful clusters of energy that live in the body until released.


 

Grief is the Soul's response to the unthinkable


Before we talk about the role of grief in healing trauma, I would like to talk about the three primary sensory states the trauma survivor experiences and cycles through, sometimes relentlessly.


The first is the state of terror. Terror is the state of internal overwhelm and panic. When we feel terror, we experience ourselves on the verge of a breakdown. We fear that we’re about to lose our capacity to cope with our reality. We feel as though we're about to die.


The second state of a trauma survivor is the state of powerlessness/helplessness. The voice powerless sounds something like this: I don’t know what to do, how do I make the stop, I can’t make this go away. Powerless is how we feel when we cannot make what’s hurting us stop hurting us. It’s an awful experience and one that visits trauma survivors often.


The third state that all trauma survivors experience is the state of despair. The voice of despair says: It doesn’t matter what I do. This is hopeless. The state of despair feels like deep, deep body exhaustion. Despair feels like paralysis or inertia. In despair one feels forever trapped in their darkness and in their pain.


Experiencing any of these states individually is scary. Having them converge simultaneously can be debilitating. The task of managing such overwhelming trauma states is indeed a challenging one, requiring immense strength and resilience. In such moments, the primary focus for a survivor often becomes seeking relief from the distress. While management strategies are crucial, delving deeper reveals the necessity of addressing and reshaping the fundamental causes of distress. It is within this exploration of the underlying roots that the true essence of transformation lies.


It is a pivotal moment in the survivor's healing journey when they reach a point where they can confront and grieve the profound absence of parental care that they deserved but never received. This process of grieving is not just about mourning the loss of what should have been, but it also serves as a catalyst for transformation. As the survivor allows themselves to delve into this grief, something shifts within them. The overwhelming trauma responses that have plagued them start to recede, making space for a new range of emotions and experiences.


Grief, in its essence, is a powerful force that can dislodge the stagnant energy of fear and helplessness that has been holding the survivor captive. It is through the expression of grief that they begin to release the pent-up emotions and pain that have been buried deep within. This release is not only cathartic but also liberating, as it paves the way for the survivor to step into a new reality.


As the survivor navigates through the murky waters of grief, they slowly but steadily begin to reclaim their sense of presence, reconnect with themselves and others, and reestablish their agency. Grief becomes a transformative process that propels them towards a state of healing and growth. It is through this journey of grieving the unmet needs and unfulfilled expectations that the survivor finds a path towards a more empowered and authentic self.


 

The ambiguous loss


Ambiguous loss is a term coined by Dr Pauline Boss to describe a loss that isn't clear. Survivors of attachment trauma experience life in the absence of the essential developmental nutrients, such as nurturing protection and secure love. Unable to clearly recognize the losses they had to learn to live without, they move through life experiencing fatigue and tension, lethargy and fear. Unnamed, the ambiguous losses of those raised in dysfunctional environments persist as a slew of often confusing and mysterious physical and psychological "symptoms."


Survivors of attachment trauma live with grief that they are unconscious of throughout their life. Their grief shows up as restlessness or agitation, unexpected bouts of anger, deep and unexplainable fatigue, or perpetual bysiness . Most survivors are unaware of their grief because their loss is ambiguous. How do I mourn the loss of something I didn't have to begin with?


You see, survivors of complex childhood trauma had to learn to live with something that was not actually compatible with life. Attachment trauma means that the child depended on adults he didn't feel safe with.


Relational trauma trains one to stay put, to remain close despite being endangered. Surviving a hostile environment is nothing if not creative. To cope, one learns to stay in perpetual denial, displaying what Dr. Jennifer Freyd calls the betrayal blindness. This ability to not see the reality for what it actually is is what gets the survivor through the war that is their childhood.


Self-protective denial of reality is a coping mechanism that many children adopt when faced with intolerable situations in their environment. This defense mechanism serves as a shield, allowing the child to mentally escape from the harsh realities that they are unable to confront or process. By tuning out from what is unbearable, the child creates a temporary refuge within their own mind, shielding themselves from emotional harm. However, this coping strategy comes at a cost, as it also disconnects the child from their innate self-protective instincts.


As the child grows older, this learned behavior of denial and disconnection from their instincts can have lasting effects. The lack of trust in oneself, instilled during childhood, can manifest in adulthood as self-doubt, insecurity, and a constant fear of breakdowns. The individual may find themselves constantly on edge, trying to preempt any situation that may trigger a breakdown, as they have internalized a deep-seated belief that they are not equipped to handle adversity.


Over time, this pattern of self-denial and mistrust can hinder personal growth and emotional well-being. It is essential for individuals who have developed such coping mechanisms in childhood to seek support and guidance to unlearn these behaviors and reestablish a healthy connection with their instincts. By acknowledging and addressing the root causes of their self-protective denial, individuals can embark on a journey towards self-acceptance, resilience, and inner strength.


 

In her book "On Death and Dying" (1969), Elizabeth Kübler-Ross described the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.


For the survivors of attachment trauma these "stages" is the constant emotional undercurrent of life. Always there, but outside of the survivor's cionscios awareness. I cannot tell you a number of people who told me about their "anger issues" or their incurable fatigue just to discover later in our work that their "issue"is grief-related.


Interestingly, it is the final stage of grief in Kübler-Ross' model that initiates the conscious grieving process for individuals who have experienced complex childhood trauma. This stage involves a radical acceptance, an acknowledgement of childhood as it really was, leading to a shift from unconscious reactions like anger, despair, or bargaining, to an awareness of the injury itself.


 

Grief could feel like a breakdown


Any time we go through a transformation or a growth spurt, we shed a skin. Grief is the process of cleansing and shedding the skin that no longer fits. The cleansing quality of grief is precisely what makes grieving is very difficult for the survivors of attachment trauma. Allowing grief in means saying goof-bye to the fantasy that love would magically become available where it has been absent. Letting go of this fantasy could feel devastating and yet it is what actually begins the truly transformative phase of the healing process.


The bottom line is that grief could feel like a breakdown and yet, one thing I have tracked time and time again is that grief is a benevolent presence.


To allow post traumatic grief requires that we hold both the reality of the breaking down of the old form and the anticipation of the new form emerging. Grief does not seek to erase our essence or eradicate the life inside of us. Grief is there to help us give birth to new form. One that can enable us to embrace life instead of fighting it.


 

The emergence of new form and the rebirth of the self-protective capacity


Attachment trauma instills in the survivor a robust ability to tolerate the intolerable in order to preserve an important relationships. When the survivor is able to accept the reality of their injury, grief kickstarts the process of dislodging old fear and old pain. Because I believe that grief is an intelligent energy, I always ask it to only bring forth what I can safely tolerate. This is also what I teach my clients.


As survivors learn to safely mourn what they have lost of what they had to go without, a new skin begins to grow. This new skin has everything to do with the newly developing ability to self-nurture and self-protect. The child in us who had little or no protection from their environment, and whose only choice was to endure, is finally able to gain a protector in us they can trust.


As conscious grief emerges, it signals that the survivor is becoming more capable of perceiving things and individuals realistically, thereby aiding in breaking the cycle of trauma that keeps them stuck in relationships where they consistently receive less than they deserve.


Surviving childhood relational trauma required that we internalized the unacceptable to maintain important connections. We had to find ways to remain connected to those who posed a threat to us.This was old skin, which grief can help us shed. The new skin, the new self-protective boundary, is learning to interrupt the reflexive accommodation of what is damaging to us in the name of securing a bond.


 

"We can love somebody and see them clearly."-Clarissa Pinkola Estés


Grieving the absence of safe love helps survivors of childhood attachment trauma begin to liberate their core goodness from the painful consequences of living life led by their survival habits.


In childhood, the preservation of the attachment bond, regardless of the quality of that bond, was the essential part of survival. A child had no choice but to make their painful bond work.


Refusing to accept the unacceptable in the name of preserving a bond is a complex and challenging situation and one the survivors of childhood abuse may need to face. A traumatic bond, as described, goes beyond a mere emotional connection; it becomes a fundamental part of the survivor's identity and existence. The idea that letting go of such a relationship could lead to a loss of self is a deeply ingrained belief that can be incredibly difficult to overcome.


The level of enmeshment characteristic of a traumatic bond creates a sense of dependency that is not easily shaken off. The survivor may feel that they are not capable of standing on their own, that their worth and survival are intrinsically tied to the dysfunctional relationship they find themselves in. This distorted perception can lead to a cycle of toxic behavior and self-sacrifice in the name of maintaining the bond.


Adapting to this pattern of dysfunction, investing time and energy into a relationship that is harmful, becomes a coping mechanism for the survivor. The thought of severing ties with the source of their trauma is akin to facing a life-threatening situation. It is as if cutting off the relationship would deprive them of the very oxygen they need to survive.


In such circumstances, breaking free from a traumatic bond requires immense courage, self-reflection, and often external support. It involves challenging deeply rooted beliefs about self-worth and identity, and relearning how to exist independently of the toxic relationship. It is a journey of rediscovering one's strength, resilience, and inherent value outside of the confines of a destructive bond.


For the survivor of childhood trauma, breaking the spell of the false narrative that without their toxic attachments they will die, is a better part of recovery.


 

Learning to let grief in is a crucial step in the journey of healing attachment trauma. Grief serves as a powerful medicine that has the ability to dislodge the remnants of the past, paving the way for new growth and fresh beginnings to take root. While the prospect of embracing grief may seem daunting and overwhelming, it is important to acknowledge that it can indeed be a an intense experience. Yet, amidst the powerful emotions that grief might bring, there lies a profound opportunity for introspection, self-compassion and, ultimately, freedom.


Engaging with grief allows us to connect with our inner child, the part of ourselves that still carries the weight of past sorrows, uncertainties, and fears. It provides a safe space to shed tears that were once suppressed or deemed too unsafe to express. Through grief, we can release suppressed emotions, allowing ourselves to mourn, protest, and even rage against the injustices of our past experiences.


Ultimately, the process of grieving presents us with a chance to start anew. It invites us to choose love, forge connections, embrace authenticity, and cultivate wisdom. By honoring our grief and facing it head-on, we can begin to shape a life that aligns with our deepest truths and values, ushering in a sense of renewal and transformation.

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