On October 30th, 2012, I got the phone call that no one wants to receive: It was from the sister of my dearly beloved best friend and Kindred Spirit, Bethany. My friend Bethany had died—and not only had she died, but she had been murdered in what turned out to be a spiritual community that had slowly turned into a emotionally and spiritually abusive cult. Later, it was to be concluded that she had actually committed suicide, but for a whole year into her death, investigators treated it like homicide, and we went through the emotional roller-coaster of believing she’d been murdered.
Ultimately, my friend had married an abusive man, the cult leader, who had warped and twisted her personality, distanced her from friends and family, psychologically tortured her, and had directed the cult community to shun her as she plummeted deeply and understandably into withering mental illness. Suicide was just the tip of the iceberg of deep oppression and abuse—all in the name of God—that Bethany endured before she took her own life.
As more and more complicated twists and turns to the story were revealed, Bethany’s story gained national media attention—the story was featured on 48 Hours, Rolling Stone, and many other news outlets—and all of us who loved her just watched the ensuing circus play out with shock and numbness. We had trusted this seemingly supportive, friendly community, we had trusted her charming husband, and we were devastated that it had all been a lie.
As it turns out, I and the others who loved her had suffered traumatic grief at its deepest core.
Trauma, Grief, & Traumatic Grief
So what is trauma? And is it different from grief—or do they always coexist? And what is a traumatic grief? It’s important to distinguish between these terms before moving forward.
According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.” However, what is most important about the concept of trauma is that the person who experiences it is deeply traumatized by the event. Grief, on the other hand, can be experienced without trauma. Grief is the emotional sadness and upheaval we feel after losing someone or something very important to us, but it is not necessarily traumatic. A person can still suffer great loss and not be traumatized, and they will go through a normal, healthy grief process.
However, grief and bereavement can become something more sinister. A truly traumatic grief can be something where the death or loss is very unexpected, bizarre, violent, or tragic—and people can become so traumatized by the loss that it leads to a seriously darker kind of grief and expression of grief that lingers.
My point is that grief and trauma do not always go hand in hand; but grief is something that will be experienced by everyone over the course of one’s lifetime, and at least 50% percent of people will experience some kind of trauma in their life, according to the American Psychological Association.
Hard things happen, period. So the important question to ask, no matter what kind of pain a person has been through, is: How do I cope? How do I heal from something when it has wounded me? How do I grieve? Is there life after loss, trauma, and tragedy?
On Coping With Grief, Trauma, and Tragedy
That’s the journey I had to learn as I sifted through the grief losing my dear friend. During the next few years, I faced losing someone I had dearly loved—a friend, mentor, and older sister figure—through truly tragic, unexpected, and twisted circumstances. There were days I could hardly get out of bed, days the anger over the abuse she suffered crushed me, days when I truly felt that if people could be so awful to other humans, then life was not worth living. I felt hopelessly broken, shattered. I felt furious at everything and distrustful of everyone. I did not see any future, nor did I care much to see one. I became suicidal. (Symptoms like this in someone often show that someone has truly been traumatized by an event).
I went to a regular therapist, read books on grief, and blogged my way through all of the emotions I was feeling on a blog that would eventually go viral (over 1,500,000 people have visited my blog over the past few years). And one of the ways I found to cope with the grief and pain was through creativity in a variety of forms. I’ve always been a creative person at heart, but through the darkness, I began to see creativity as a beacon that helped me process and express something unseen that simply talking about the tragedy couldn’t resolve. I danced, I wrote, I painted, I sung—and every single expression was a light through the darkness.
As I began to do more research on the subject, I actually realized that there are scientific reasons creativity helps people cope with trauma and loss.
Healing the Brain & Body after Grief & Trauma
As a Western society, grief and pain in general aren’t really acknowledged. Most people seem to think that whatever we’ve been through should naturally just rub off in a few weeks. We are not taught to mourn or process what’s gone. We’re taught to move on quickly so we can get on with “normal life.”
The problem with this is that our brains don’t work that way.
Three Distinct Levels of the Brain
As Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., has written about in his groundbreaking book on trauma called The Body Keeps The Score, neuroscience research has shown that the brain is more complicated than we could’ve ever imagined. According to van der Kolk, our brains harbors three different layers: the “reptilian brain” (the oldest part of our brain) in the form of the brain stem and hypothalamus, which controls the energy and basic functions of the body like thirst, hunger, and sleep—along with regulating emotions; the “mammalian brain,” which holds the limbic system—the seat of emotions and evaluating pleasure, pain, and experiences; and finally, the neocortex with its frontal lobes, the rational part of our brain that plans and predicts, imagines and plays, and is essential for self control and empathy.
The Right Brain and The Left Brain
In general, these three distinct levels of the brain areas are also divided into what scientists refer to as the left brain and the right brain hemispheres. When a tragic, painful event happens, the body’s senses take in the emotions, images, smells, etc., first through the right side of the brain/emotional brain, which incorporates a number of elements from the two oldest parts of our brain—like the limbic system, which houses the thalamus—a portion of the brain that “cooks” our sensory observations like sight, sound, and taste into a current experience—and the amygdala, which warns us of impending danger depending on that sensory concoction.
Once the right side has processed a deeply painful happening through the senses and emotions (taking milliseconds to do so) experiences are then processed by the left side of the brain, where they become categorized in a logical way through facts, statistics, and vocabulary. But the left side of the brain—which hosts the medial prefrontal cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, areas that focus on evaluating circumstances and putting them in context, respectively—doesn’t always interpret things correctly. The left brain wants to analyze, categorize, and put everything neatly into its place to help a person feel organized or rational, putting up the façade of functionality even if that isn’t the case.
These areas of the brain need things neatly explained, categorized, and put in context. Oh, that didn’t really hurt me deeply. That wasn’t a big deal. It’s my fault anyway. The left brain might make untrue or unhealthy conclusions based upon the harmful experience. The brain has even been know to completely block memories that are too painful, leading to amnesia about painful events or traumatic circumstances.
Why Creativity Matters to the Brain & Body
But lurking underneath the seemingly neatly organized categories of the left brain is the hidden emotional, imagistic, sensory truth-telling of the right brain that often expresses the real story of how damaging an experience might’ve been. The oldest areas of our brain hold the trauma and/or grief in deeper ways, and it often takes the left brain a long time to catch up to the pain or arousal that is happening in the emotional centers of our minds. If negative memories, emotions, and senses aren’t dealt with on a deeper level, they can cause serious damage to the heart, mind, and body.
When pain is not processed for the left and right brains in a truthful, healthy manner, it festers inside our bodies, causing a plethora of mental illnesses and/or physical illnesses that manifest in a variety of ways depending on the person, according to Trauma and Health, by Paula P. Schnurr, PhD, and Bonnie L. Green, PhD. A person may numb the pain through alcohol or drugs, but the pain is lingering inside, causing disruption internally that could lead to further damage down the road.
It is only when you accept the pain of the right brain—the deeper emotions, images, sights, tastes, senses of an experience—and work through them that you can move on with your life as someone who has been deeply wounded or traumatized.
This is where creativity can be so important. Creativity gives us a freeing, beautiful, even fun way to help ourselves tap into the reality of memories buried deep within and release them. Deep down, your brain is always telling the reality of your story, and creativity gives us a way to bypass the more logical, categorizing parts of the brain and access the buried truths of your emotional and sensory centers.
The Healing Benefits of Artistic Expression
As I begun more and more experimentation with creativity, I began to find myself finding relief that talk therapy did not quite solve. While talk therapy does have its place, I found from personal experience that a well-rounded therapeutic, healing process will incorporate a variety of creative techniques to also help the right brain/emotional brain areas let go of the grief and/or trauma that is stored deeply within the recesses of the mind.
Dance & Yoga
Six months after Bethany died, I took up dance in the form of adult ballet classes. Gradually, I then moved into yoga. People who have had deep grief and/or trauma often numb themselves and are completely out of touch with their own bodies in order to avoid the sensations of grief and pain. Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, traumatic and painful events can have a profound impact on the body’s storage of stress, and working through the physiological layers of the body can release stress, tension, and emotions in a way that is safe for someone who hasn’t felt safe in the body in ages.
Moving the body creatively was a tactile way to begin expressing the deep sorrow I felt inside myself and often couldn’t express in words. I had to start listening to my body in deeper ways, and I began to realize how deeply in pain I truly was from the experience (from headaches to tightness in my muscles to digestive issues, etc.). There were times I truly ached inside, and the stress of grief on my entire body ensured that yoga and dance became essential to helping me move beyond stress and better deal with emotions that were trapped inside.
Expressive Art & Art Therapy
Expressive art has been an amazing healing tool. I have gone through the book Art & Healing by the Barabara Ganim, a holistic health counselor and writer who founded the Expressive Arts Institute at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island. In this book, Barbara uses guided art activities to help people tap into their emotional centers in easy, simple ways—often with profound, startling results. It’s amazing what colors and imagery can do to help you realize the sorts of things that are lurking underneath the surface, and the brain research already mentioned above can help explain why.
Our brains store the deepest, most truthful memories in images, senses, colors, etc.—and invoking those through art so that they no longer captivate the psyche can help us process and heal. I’ve gained profound, life-changing, healing insights from doing basic expressive art and art therapy tactic in my own healing journey. And these sorts of books and activities are accessible to anyone with any level of creative background, not just “artists.”
Music is one of the most accessible and most researched areas of art and healing. Whether it’s listening to music, playing an instrument, taking up voice lessons, or singing in a choir—music has been proven to calm anxiety and bring heart rates down, and boost the immune system in a variety of studies, including one conducted by the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine. Or there’s this study, conducted by the Royal Northern College of Music, that showed group singing alleviated depression and enhanced physical well-being,
I myself took up voice lessons randomly one summer after Bethany’s death, and I began to learn to use my voice and find more confidence, while also releasing feelings instead of stuffing them down. While I’m not a great singer by any means, it was very beneficial and helped me release and express emotions that I simply couldn’t seem to express any other way. I also, of course, listen to soothing, healing music quite often in everyday life, and I really don’t know what I’d do without music to alleviate stress and pain on any given day.
Creative writing and journaling can be a powerful tool for healing. James Pennebaker, PhD, a professor at University of Texas, was the first researcher to conduct studies on this topic—which he writes about in a down-to-earth way in Expressive Writing: Words that Heal and multiple other books. In the mid-80s, Pennebaker conducted a study where 50 people had to write about the most traumatic incidents of their lives for 15 minutes a day for 4 consecutive days. According to Pennebaker, those who conducted the experiment made 43% less doctor’s visits in the 3 months following the study. Pennebaker has been studying the effects of creative writing and writing about hard events ever since.
As a writer, I can attest to the fact that writing has played a key role in my own healing; I have always journaled, and the necessity of honestly writing out my emotions and thoughts doubled after experiencing the tragic death of my friend. My viral blog, which is full of articles and poems on grief and healing, is proof that writing provided something profoundly therapeutic—both to myself and to countless others—as I journeyed through the intense pain of processing the wounds of losing my dear friend.
[Photo 8: Creative writing as a tool to help people process grief an/or trauma was first developed by James Pennebaker, but the concept of journaling has been around for centuries and centuries. Photo by Ivan Kruk from Adobe Stock.]
While this article cannot articulate all of the benefits of creativity when learning to heal and deal with grief and/or trauma, nor can it fully describe the complex brain, I hope that it can at least sparks some curiosity and exploration into this huge subject. For anyone reading this who may have experienced pain and trauma, it’s important to know that your mind and body have all the tools inside to help you process, repair, and heal. And that can be a truly empowering realization.
I personally have come so far; I have renewed hope, and life did not end with tragedy. Life came back again. I hope to impart to anyone reading this that no matter what kind of darkness you have experienced, you can find your way through the darkness—and creativity is a great tool of light on that journey forward, upward, onward.
Cover Photo by Adobe Stock/Tanouchka