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Good grief: The power of harnessing collective trauma and healing

The worst year on record to live was 536. At least that’s what scientists say.

A fog fell over Europe that lasted 18 months. Snow fell that summer in China. Crops failed and people starved. Bread in Ireland failed for three years. The bubonic plague struck. The Dark Ages fell upon those just trying to make it.

The scale of catastrophe feels similar to our current climate. There’s catastrophic flooding in Europe. The American West is burning. We’re talking about things like wet bulb temperatures because regular temperature and humidity all of a sudden aren’t accurate measures of the earth’s health anymore.

And that’s just taking a look at the earth’s health. It doesn’t begin to look at the suffering of it inhabitants.

Nowhere is impervious from suffering, even Sonoma County. In fact, if you really think about it, suffering is what makes humans human. Suffering, strife and struggle are all part of the life experience. They’re universal, regardless of how much money someone makes. Stress and suffering unite us and what we all have in common.

Over the past 18 months, the county has carried significant stress from myriad sources of physical and emotional trauma. Just take a look at the issues affecting our county directly or indirectly:

• Catastrophic wildfires

• California drought

• Increased violence against AAPI community

• Deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor

• Death of Andy Lopez (being brought back up)

• Increased excessive police brutality, including multiple cases here in Sonoma County

• The unraveling of Dominic Foppoli and the Town of Windsor’s Council/Sonoma County politics

• The Jan. 6 breach on the Capitol

And then there are the wildfires and the pandemic, which we dealt with at the same time.

“The pandemic is hard to even address: the collective scale of the grief. The scale of the loss. The needless carelessness and pettiness of so much of the response. It has affected me profoundly,” said Gage Opdenbrouw. “I’d say the same about the fire catastrophe we are facing annually here in the West. It’s hard to even talk about, because what is there to say? A lot, really, but all of it so dark.”

Opdenbrouw is a Sonoma County artist who spent the last 18 months putting together a show, currently on view at Sebastopol’s Horse and Plow. Called “Black Spring,” the exhibition showcases paintings and drawings of blooms, bones and buildings. The show coincided with the recent release of “Instructions for an Animal Body,” a new book of poetry by Sonoma County writer and Opdenbrouw’s life partner Kelly Gray.

During the pandemic, Gray found refuge in herself and her home.

But home wasn’t always safe. As she crept into isolation, she noticed trauma re-awake inside of her.

“I was very vulnerable and had time to look at my pain and see the ways I was able to heal or not heal,” Gray said.

She saw her world around her heal and not heal too.

“There was so little in the rest of the world that felt safe. And you’re forced to see more when you’re in one place. It took me a while to see how deeply trauma had moved me in so many different directions,” Gray said. “I realized how tired I was. How deeply tired I was and that I needed to rest.”

Gray wasn’t alone in feeling that way.

Dr. Debra Kaysen, a Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences with the Public Mental Health & Population Sciences Division at Stanford Medicine talks about the treatment of trauma and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the time of COVID-19.

“People may feel a range of psychological effects associated with [traumautic] stress. You might see symptoms like feelings of sadness, loss, worry, anxiety, sleep disturbance, or irritability. People may be grieving the loss of their routine or their normal experiences and their pre-COVID life. All of these are symptoms that have been reported by individuals exposed to COVID-related stressors,” Kaysen writes.

Kaysen adds that humans are resilient – a Sonoma County buzzword. But even resiliency “is something we acquire, especially if we are able to use more helpful coping strategies when we are faced with stressors or traumas.” In other words, we have to build up to resiliency.

“It took me a while to see how deeply trauma had moved me in so many different directions.”

And that’s hard to do alone.

As Gray emerged from the pandemic, she saw “how deep in decline everything was and couldn’t help but wonder: what capacity for adaptability do we actually have as humans? It made me get out and move forward.”

How to move forward was the question.

“Writing was something I’ve always done but I only just started to share it with people in the last two years,” Gray said. “I used to feel writing was an emotional burden on people but the more I share it, the more people say: that’s exactly how I feel, too.”

She wrote a book on the decline of whales. She wrote a play (‘Beautiful Monsters’ at Left Edge theater Sept. 4-19).

“This is the way to participate in our collective grief,” Gray said.

Opdenbrouw agreed.

“Grief and loss, which are the shadow side of beauty, are certainly large presences in my work of recent years, and the “Midsummer Sun in an Empty Room” paintings stem from that,” Opdenbrouw said. “I don’t usually set out to paint grief or trauma directly, but I do think its shadow is always a strong presence in my work. It informs my concept of beauty, which is that life is a very fragile thing that could easily go a thousand other ways. Every time I see something I think is beautiful, it’s a meditation on mortality and impermanence.”

Kelly Gray and Gage Opdenbrouw. Photo provided.
Kelly Gray and Gage Opdenbrouw. Photo provided.

Studying grief and loss in their art and writing respectively has helped both Opdenbrouw and Gray see themselves as tiny parts of a larger system. And, in making that realization, they’ve found a bit more acceptance in life.

“I don’t usually set out to paint grief or trauma directly, but I do think its shadow is always a strong presence in my work. It informs my concept of beauty, which is that life is a very fragile thing that could easily go a thousand other ways.”

“I did a residency in the Cascades, at Mineral School, in Washington, and next to the schoolhouse that served as my home and studio, there was a house that had burned halfway down, but was left standing. I’d found my motif, and it was perfect. Pantries of canned food abandoned to the heat and peeling paint.” Opdenbrouw said. “I found all that spoke to my personal sense of loss at loved ones dying, but I also found it eloquent to loss beyond the human scale, which is something I really love about Kelly’s work, the recent whale poems especially—they speak to loss and grief and time on a scale far beyond the human, and I think that’s really so beautiful.”

Kaysen offers insights on collective grief:

“One of the big challenges with COVID-19 has been collective grief. For those who have lost friends, coworkers, and loved ones, COVID has interrupted our grieving rituals and processes. When someone is ill, we want to be with them. When someone dies, we often grieve by gathering together as a community, by comforting each other with touch and with our physical presence. All of these things are problematic during this pandemic, which can make grief harder to bear and can also make it more difficult to feel a sense of finality about the loss. In processing the grief, it may be helpful to identify new achievable rituals. This could be a virtual memorial service or having an online space for people to leave notes or messages. It could be planting a tree in their memory. It is also important to more actively reach out for social supports and comforts since people may not be able to physically gather together.”

Identifying ways to grieve together

While isolation is a standard stage of grief, in many cultures, grief is often a collective experience. In fact, we are often able to get out of our grief when we share it with others.

During the recovery of the Tubbs Fire, the Coffey Park and Larkfield neighborhoods that worked with the County and had neighborhood block captains made the strongest bonds while navigating new territory. They still thrive with resiliency and optimism today.

If we are unable to grieve in a community, it is impossible for individuals to heal fully. Grief demands to be heard from all beings.

“For those of us who are grieving the old lives we had, who are grieving the milestones that have been interrupted, or the anticipated events that aren’t happening or aren’t happening the way we expected, these are also losses,” Kaysen writes. “For these experiences it can be helpful to give yourself permission to have feelings about these losses. Anticipating what may trigger feelings of sadness and loss can be useful. And it is helpful to develop adaptive coping strategies around these experiences. It could be practicing gratitude, reaching out for social supports, going for a walk, journaling, or other positive coping activities.”

Produce art or music, even if you’ve never tried before. Share your thoughts, feelings and expressions. Listen to others. Seek to understand the grief of others more than you wish your own to be understand (doing so might help with your own grief).

“Sometimes I think that can be a powerful purpose for art—a place where we can meet our human needs that are unmet by 21st century terminal capitalism,” Opdenbrouw said. “And to share experience, share humanity, vulnerability, resilience. So I don’t know how much it gives me comfort to be able to paint about it all, but it does help me process, accept, and see. It’s always felt important to me to see clearly, even though that often takes a lot of courage.”

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