Trauma begets trauma

We’re watching Hell on earth on our screens play out every day from Lviv, Mariupol and Dnipro, cities and town in Ukraine. I had never heard of any of these cities until February 24 when the Russians invaded … causing unimaginable brutality and pain perpetrated on the innocents. Imagine civilians like you and me being bombed, tortured, raped, throats cut, killed by invading soldiers dropping bombs from the sky or by soldiers on the ground. War is usually avoided at all costs because was is Hell; fortunately, I’ve never had to go to war.

I remember distinctly during the Vietnam War there was a Draft Day. Birth dates were randomly picked and announced live on the television. My birth date received No. 250; most pundits thought a number that high would not be drafted into the armed forces. That’s not to say I didn’t know a little about the trauma that war has on its participants. My father in law who at age eighteen was dropping bombs during WWII could never talk about his experiences decades later as a husband and father to his wife or children. It was too much pain to remember and describe. An unusually happy go lucky kind of guy, he was tormented by his memories.

My mother was an eleven year old refugee, one of the 110,000 Jewish refugees who settled in America in 1936 escaping from Nazi Germany. As an adult she too still could not talk of her traumatic past when she was separated from her parents as an only child, and all her childhood friends were sent off to other countries around the world never to be seen again. For her the trauma was best buried. She too never talked about her pain and fears and unease to anybody, her friends, her husband (my father) and naturally, not to her two sons. She was depressed her whole life; two post partum depression episodes followed her into adult life as a new mother.

Whenever my father travelled out of the country on business, this separation set off a sense of melancholy in her. It was in her bones and in her mind even though she was safe in America. The 1963 movie The Pawnbroker left a mark on me; I was eleven when I saw it. Rod Steiger played the part of a sullen man who survived a concentration camp, but struggled to live a life in New York City. Flashbacks haunted him.

So here I am in Massachusetts, in my townhouse, relaxing and well nourished, browsing news on my MacBook, having returned from my daily walk around the neighborhood. I’m far, far away from the relentless bombing and fears and screams in Ukraine. I’m incredibly grateful for the comforts I have even thought the culture wars between the Dems and GOP are causing great concern.

I think of the millions of refugees displaced by the damn Russians and how despite the welcoming received in their new countries, I wonder, won’t they still be scarred for life? Few people, it is true, can go through life without encountering some kind of trauma, but isn’t the trauma from war more severe than other kinds of trauma? War effects one’s sense of self, safety and security even after the violence ends.

According to Psychology Today magazine: “Trauma is a person’s emotional response to a distressing experience … Unlike ordinary hardships, traumatic events tend to be sudden and unpredictable, and involve a serious threat to life – like bodily injury or death – and feels beyond a person’s control. Most important, events are traumatic to the degree that they undermine a person’s sense of safety in the world and create a sense that catastrophe could strike at any time. Parental loss in childhood, auto accidents, physical violence, sexual assault, military combat experiences, the unexpected loss of a loved one are commonly traumatic events.”

It seems that war is the ultimate traumatic event: of the examples listed in the last sentence above, all of them occur during a war; and all of them can easily occur to one person at the same time, or over a brief period of time.

Not all refugees from a war conflict recover well, and others can’t even make it into adulthood. A former manager of mine, Gwynn J., adopted through her church a couple of the “Lost Boys of Sudan”, a group of boys of the Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups who were orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1987-2005). These children, many of whom were only seven or eight years of age when they were forced to become child soldiers (armed with guns instead of playing with their toys) “were the victims of the largest systematic program of child genocide since the Nazi Holocaust”. One day, Gwynn returned home from grocery shopping to find one of the boys trying to hang himself in the basement.

I believe the violence and trauma inflicted on the refugee adults and children will become a breeding ground for more disturbances, unease and trauma as pain and disturbance breeds violence. Recovery is not attainable for all. Some may be resilient and some may be able to recapture a sense of meaning and fulfillment in their lives whether they are reunited with their loved ones in Ukraine or not; I don’t know; I hope so. It is my hope that they may be able to recover and have a meaningful life.

It was Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust concentration camp survivor himself who as a psychotherapist recognized that people who suffered trauma could find new meaning and fulfillment by devoting their lives through a cause or a deed. There are many amongst us who have survived traumas and been able to remake themselves with the support of mental health services and love of their family and friends. Some say if there’s a will, there’s a way. Hopefully, humanitarian aid, faith-based and mental health services will be afforded to all the Ukrainian people for as long as they need them whether they settle in their new countries, cities and towns, or are able to return to Ukraine and continue their journey.

Published by Richard Halpern

Retired (but busy) after a lengthy career in business marketing, communications and research. Worked at four start-ups and one turnaround. Now volunteer doing prospect research for a climate activity and social advocacy non profit, amongst other things.

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