6 Ways to Heal from Cumulative Grief & Trauma

October 05, 2016

cumulative grief trauma

Trauma and loss happen to us all. Suffering is a part of life. 

But sometimes things occur and we don’t know or recognize it as trauma, or as something to be grieved. So we go on living, and eventually these traumas pile high inside us like dirty laundry and the burden begins to take its toll.

The scary part about grief/trauma is that eventually it can escalate into cumulative grief which is built up grief after multiple losses which occur on a regular basis or within a short period of time. Think of a physical injury like a broken bone which is re-injured, making the pain more intense and chronic.

Things like chronic fatigue, compassion fatigue, and depression can have linkages to unprocessed trauma, stress, and negative beliefs.

Cumulative losses put us at greater risk for prolonged grief which make coping mechanisms like anger, avoidance, denial, alcohol, TV, or adultery to numb the pain, more attractive. 

Grief is something that needs to be felt deeply and released.

But often in life or cross cultural work, due to the heavy demands on us, we are forced to keep going, to keep surviving, even though slowly our life force is being depleted.

When I served in Uganda as a missionary, I didn’t fully realize the damaging, cumulative effects that simply living in another culture were having on me. Not to mention the secondary trauma related to my field of work with sex trafficking victims.

Strangely, some of the most difficult parts for me were not just “events,” but the environment.

The heaviness of injustice from a corrupt government, the stark poverty, the inaccessibility to resources to help my women and children, the grieving every time we lost a member of our community to disease or malnutrition, the weight of guilt every time I couldn’t help someone I desperately wanted to.

Then there are all the larger traumas that happen while serving overseas like hearing gunshots, being robbed, having a vehicle or motorbike accident, seeing a violent attack, having a miscarriage, not having access to necessary medical resources nearby, having a traumatic birth of a baby, having the government remove a foster child, the constant funerals of close loved ones, witnessing child abuse, transitions.

Many of these happened to me or to close friends and we just considered them “a part of life” or “normal” occurrences on the mission field.

What made these situations worse is that normal resources which would be offered in the United States to provide a sense of “safety” like proper medical care, judicial processes, counselors for trauma, debriefing, were unavailable to us.

That sense of safety, order, and recourse was ripped from us, which can be a terrifyingly vulnerable experience.

But we had to make our own way carrying the wounds inside us like a limp.

These wounds were amplified by the very real or perceived expectations from the sending church, or ministry that missionaries are supposed to be “persecuted” and therefore they need to be “spiritual” enough to handle it. 

Very few employers have adequate member care or provide time off for debriefing with a safe person when traumatic events happen.

Missions is a field where persevering is celebrated, and stopping to grieve is shamed. It’s no wonder we have so much burnout.

Our lack of authenticity and our inability to make space for it, is strangling the very mission we’ve set out to do.

How can we expect to be a reflection of Jesus when we haven’t taken the time to be honest with Him about the state of our hearts?

Authenticity grows in the environment of intimacy.

And yet when grief/loss/trauma happen and they are not dealt with, it leads to anger at God, self, others, and this anger turned inward leads to depression. What can occur then is a loss of faith or a distancing from God, which is normal, but in some cases, can become permanent.

To know that there will be no justice is a trauma in and of itself. But to be misunderstood on top of being abused, is a debilitating combination.

We need a new missions paradigm and a new way to deal with grief. 

I see it every day in my time with cross cultural workers, but it still hurts my heart so much, especially because I’ve been there.

Here are 6 ways to heal from cumulative grief and trauma:

1. Create a Loss History Graph/Grief Timeline

The primary purpose of this exercise is to create a detailed examination of the loss events in your life and to identify the patterns that have resulted from them. Be gentle with yourself, allow yourself to feel the loss without suppressing, and don’t judge the losses no matter how big or small they may seem. You might be surprise as I was, how many losses I’d experienced in the last few months/year even. (I counted over 30 major losses in the last year- whew! No wonder I was tired!)

Being honest with yourself is very important in this exercise.

For continued healing, circle the losses that still feel incomplete, meaning which feels the most intensely painful and is the most limiting or restricting for you right now. Choose one and decide to focus on that one. “Completing” doesn’t mean you forget, but that you take time to feel, grieve the loss either on your own or with a counselor and you find a measure of relief. (For more see The Grief Recovery Handbook)

2. Talk to your church/organization about your need for help

For most of us, this is the most difficult step, being vulnerable about asking for help especially from those we are supposed to be serving. But be honest. 

3. Take time off the field or away from your job to be restored

Many traumas/losses take time to recover from, time to acutely feel and delve deep and our regular day to day life/tasks get in the way of that. It’s easy to suppress, ignore, deny, or just not make time for the work we need to do. Make it a priority to take a break.

4. Find a counselor, life coach, spiritual director to help you process

This is a crucial step in the healing process. For most of us it is difficult to process grief without verbally doing so or telling our story to a safe person who is qualified to help us process our pain. I work with people to help them process their pain and trauma in healthy ways.

5. Journal. Ask Jesus where He was when this event happened to you

Write down the whole event in detail, stopping to grieve as you write out how you felt in each moment. Ask Him to show you how He protected you, where He was with you, ask the Holy Spirit to reveal where you were not alone. Ask Him to show you one redemptive thing from this event.

6. Forgive

The most difficult step in healing is that once we grieve, we must forgive, ourself, others, God. But we can’t get to this step without genuine honesty first. Try writing a letter to whomever you need to listing all the ways they’ve hurt you, asking God to show you the good parts about them, or anything redemptive He’s brought from the pain. If it’s God you need to forgive, tell him why you are angry. He can handle it.

Are you in the midst of dealing with cumulative grief/trauma?

Remember to take time to grieve.

For further reading:

Storyline’s workbook
Trauma & PTSD Among Missionaries by Karen Carr
The Body Keeps Score

*If you need some help, here is a list of more resources

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  • Lorinda Manley

    Great article! I love that the explanation is simple and direct-hits right at the root. The fact that there are practical, easy to follow through activities to heal and find joy again makes this one of the best articals I’ve read on the topic. Thanks for making the effort to share it <3

    • Thanks Lorinda, I really appreciate that! I wanted it to be practical. I hope if you find it useful you’ll share with your friends :)

  • Krista M.

    Could you explain what you mean about forgiving God? That seems to imply He’s done something wrong.

    • Forgiving God doesn’t have to do with His nature or His goodness, as those are immutable, but rather the state of our hearts. When we feel like we misheard God and it led to devastating consequences, or even we were doing what God asked of us, and we got hurt, or feel abandoned by God in times of pain, anger and resentment builds up in our hearts. In order to move beyond this offense so it doesn’t develop disconnection in our relationship, we have to tell him what hurt, and forgive Him from our hearts in order to move beyond it, just as we would do in any other close, intimate relationship. Does that make sense?

  • Sarita, thank you for writing this. I have been living in SE Asia for the past 2 1/2 years with my family. During that time I have gone through secondary infertility and 4 miscarriages. I’ve never been good at grieving, my family was much more of a “fake it till you make it” kind! You were sad for a while and then you moved past it and got on with life. So I think after my first loss I tried to not let it consume me and move on quickly. It happens to women all the time, right? Then came another… and another…and then another. And each time I feel a little more buried and a little more crushed and hopeless. Being far away from home and any medical care adds to the fear and anxiety. I definitely feel like I haven’t grieved like I need to but it’s like I can’t get my head above water to breathe before I get pulled back down. I am seeing a counselor once a month( thank God for Skype) but I like your suggestion of the loss history graph. I’m a visual person and I think mapping out the losses would be helpful. Thank you for your blog. I have read several posts and it helps to know there are people who have been through this grief – both the trauma and how it plays out living overseas.

    • Lindsey, thank you for sharing your heart. Oh man, I know the grief that accompanies miscarriage and I am so sorry for your losses. Thank you for your vulnerability, it’s always so encouraging to me to know that my writing can touch others. And thank you for your sacrifice living overseas. I do work with women struggling through infertility so if you ever need anything pls feel free to reach out. Blessings!