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.
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.”