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Supporting Grief – Trauma and the Emotional Brain
Grief and how to help #5
Emotions can have a life of their own at times. We may find ourselves bursting into tears, or perhaps laughing at an inappropriate moment. Later on reflection we may find ourselves thinking “well that was strange.” Most of the time we can ‘keep it together’ and keep our emotions in check, but at others, particularly with traumatic situations, we may not be able to. This is not a sign of weakness, but the way our brains are wired.
Dr Daniel Siegel is a neuro-scientist and professor and has developed a hand model of the brain (click to watch), which in essence uses the thumb to represent the emotional part of the brain (limbic system), while the fingers represent the thinking (cortex) part of the brain. I can remember being introduced to this model while I was a chaplain in a primary school, and have found it useful. The brain is wired so that the emotional and thinking parts of the brain cannot operate at the same time. This makes sense, because if you need to take evasive action, such as getting off the road because a car is coming, you do this immediately because your life depends on it. You don’t stop to think “Should I get off the road?” , you just do.
But sometimes our emotions get the better of us, they become out of control, particularly if there is trauma. This is because the thinking part of our brain has disengaged. We may say things we would not normally say, or do things we would not normally do. It is in these times we should not make decisions, as our brains are not in the space to be able to do so. There is an argument we should not drive, although having some time alone can help. I know for me it does.
Bring Dr Siegel’s model into the grief space. When we experience a loss of any sort, it will be a traumatic experience. Our ability to think and to reason are compromised. That is why funeral directors walk families through the funeral process; they understand, only too well, the trauma families are going through. I find this also when I am meeting with families in my role as a funeral celebrant.
As supportive friends, please know that to the grieving person, the loss just makes no sense. It is just too traumatic. It is overwhelming, it is dark, it feels like the world has ended. They will say things that make no sense, they may repeat things, they may suddenly have the need to do something without warning. This is what trauma is, and all we can do is walk with them, and ensure they stay safe. They need protecting, as they may not be capable of keep themselves safe. They may be able to calm themselves down in time, we do have this ability, while at other times, encouraging them to count down from ten, or some other thinking activity may help. Every situation and person will be different.
The commentary in this blog is intended to be general in nature. It is just some observations from one fellow traveller in life to another. If anything in this blog raises issues for you, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or consult with a trusted medical professional.