Understanding Trauma Using the Five Stages of Grief

“It’s often easiest when you are in the thick of it.”

Those are the words I recently heard Sir John Kirwan say, one of New Zealand’s former rugby players and mental health advocates said during a Westpac bank webinar.

It reminded me of what it was like when I experienced trauma in my life and it triggered my brain to begin piecing together a model to help represent what mindset and emotions you may be going through as you process trauma.

As I wrap up my time here in New Zealand, it is crazy to think that during my three months visit I was to have experienced a summer filled with blue skies, sunshine, and heat. However, instead I experienced what has historically been described as a 1-in-200-year event.

Over 10,000 people have been displaced, an immense amount of land, homes, and crops have been destroyed, as well as several lives were lost, and as you can imagine, mental health has declined.

Visualizing The Process

As I reflected on how it might be possible to better understand where you are in processing grief or loss, I designed this model reflecting upon what many refer to as the five stages of grief.

In the beginning, it may be the easiest time for you because your mind is in a fight or flight mode and you are just reacting to what is happening. You are on auto pilot and may be thinking to yourself “There’s no way this is actually happening.”

Without prior experience to a traumatic situation, can be hard to imagine going through it differently.

For example, when my dad was paralyzed in his hunting accident, I found myself in more of an emotional state of reacting to daily events vs. when I was paralyzed in my motocross accident, I knew more of what to expect and could respond differently.

Next, when you move into the second stage of grief your mind may become fixed with anger. You “can’t believe it happened” to you and you feel stuck in your current reality.

Usually I have found that anger begins to surface when “the dust begins to settle”.

Next, over time your mind may try to begin bargaining with you playing through thoughts and scenarios of “What if?”.

“What if I wasn’t there that day?”, “What if we had taken a different route?”, or “What if this didn’t happen, how would our life be?”.

The problem with that is you emotionally become frustrated because we all know we can’t change the past.

Next, our mind may then shift into depression where we finally acknowledge that “this hurts”. Pain is real, whether it is mental, physical, or emotional, part of the grieving process involves pain.

But eventually we will arrive at acceptance where we believe that “it will be ok” and in our mind we can release ourselves from the past to begin moving forward.

Moving Beyond Grief

One of my favourite mind experts is Peter Crone, and he has a very powerful quote which is, “What happened, happened, and couldn’t have happened any other way because it didn’t”.

From my experience with both the traumatic events of my dad’s and my paralysis, all the way down to the unexpected micro challenges I faced with my disability over the last several months while travelling, the key to moving forward with anything in life is acceptance, but at the same time we must allow ourselves to feel what we need to feel and not beat ourselves up if we are in the middle of the process.

Depending on the person and what amount or type of trauma you experience will surely have an impact on how you move through your grieving process and process trauma. What I hope to achieve with this model is to help bring understanding to see where you are in your grieving journey.

My heart goes out to everyone here in New Zealand at this time. During my three months stay I had two friends I met in one week tell me they lost a friend to suicide. I can say with certainty that there are many people who are suffering in silence and that we are more alike than we are different.

Continue to deepen your level of self-awareness to understand your mindset, and if you are currently struggling, please reach out and ask for help.

In New Zealand:

  • Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.
  • The Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202 (to talk to a trained counsellor about how you are feeling or to ask any questions).
  • Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email [email protected] or online chat.
  • The Lowdown Text 5626 for support to help young people recognise and understand depression or anxiety.
  • Alcohol Drug Helpline (0800 787 797)

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