The Liminality of Grief in Trauma

As time continues to press forward after the April 30 shooting at UNCC, I have continued to reflect, think about my experience, and discuss the experiences with others that were there and beyond.

The summer is over and I am required to be around people more frequently. I am in a new city, meeting new people, and starting a “new chapter” in my life (whatever that means). For the people that know what happened, I often hear “you’re doing so well!”

I find this to be an interesting assertion. That judgment is made from a very limited interaction in response to: smiling, laughing, being productive, or just being able to function. However, it completely misses out on: sleepless nights, random bouts of depression, anxiety, a fear of going out in public, a feeling of a lack of control, guilt, grief, and a myriad of other complex emotional states. 

My subjective interpretation of “you’re doing so well” is “you are able to behave in a way that isn’t a drag and thus my experience of you is positive.”

Of course I can! I understand polite performance and how to carry out my obligations in spite of the trauma that I have experienced and the daily struggle that results. I don’t want to be a burden or impede other people’s flow. I am able to perform “normalcy” while also having a particular internal and private experience of trauma; and that trauma is recapitulated every time another mass shooting happens (i.e. the Texas spree shooting in Odessa, TX on August 31).

I feel trapped in a never ending cycle of grief and grief is the topic that I want to explore.

I am well acquainted with grief. I’ve lost: my father, best friend, grandmothers, grandfather, other friends, and mentors and I’ve always demonstrated a great resilience. While that resilience is partially internal, it is mostly formed through external forces.

Support from family, friends, and colleagues definitely plays huge role but cultural processes play a necessary role as well. Cultures have symbolic systems in place to assist members with the experience of grief, provide solace and acceptance, and to transition one from the liminal state (an ambiguous position between states of being) of grief back into society.

Here I have to admit that death and grief have lost much of this ritualization in the United States in favor of a more medicalized and capitalist forms of grieving. “Five Stages of Grief“, psychiatric designations of grief, a $20.7B per year funerary business, and a loss of tradition around death and dying.

Despite all this, the small bits of ritual that hang on were a huge comfort in experiencing the loss of loved ones. I’m from rural North Carolina and here is the process:

  • The funeral home service and ritual viewing line that honor the dead and offer comfort.
  • Food. Offerings of food are brought to the house.
  • The funeral. All of my loved ones that have died were Christian and so there are certain actions and utterances that are performed and spoken as part of the ritualized grieving.
  • The burial. Once at the grave site, there are more utterances followed by the family symbolically tossing soil on the casket after it is lowered into the hole.
  • More food.

And once all of this formal ritual is complete, the bereaved moves from the liminal state of grief to being reintegrated in society (with variation since there are a lot of factors to grief).

Grieving rituals are really important. Some cultures wail and show very visceral outward emotion of grief. Others self-flagellate. The Wari’ engage in ritualized cannibalism as a form of grief (Conklin 2001). Malagasy “turn the bones” of the deceased (Graeber 1995). There were death watches in Europe and structured mourning periods with particular dress and action. Māori perform Haka.

These practices at once memorialize the deceased and transition the person through mourning.

But what happens when what you are mourning isn’t a deceased relative or friend but the death of your old life; a trauma that has transformed you into a new self? We don’t have any ritual to help with this and because there is no cultural practice that assists in the transition from mourning back to society. This results in being stuck in a perpetual state of grief.

Note: Here I’m not just talking about mass shootings. I am talking about transformative trauma.

Through conversations with other survivors of the shooting, I have found that my experience is fairly ubiquitous. When out with friends or family and they are having fun, there is an intense sense of guilt. “How can I have fun or be happy when this happened?” “If I’m happy then that must mean I am over it. Am I dishonoring the dead and other victims if I’m happy?” These are all questions that come to mind.

The answer to these questions are policed by others by statements like “you’re doing so well!”. Another thought that comes to mind when hearing that is “they must think that I am awful because it must seem to them that I don’t care about what happened or it had little effect on me.”

The concern is that if I look happy, or like I’m having fun, or can simply function then the trauma must not be real. The trauma must not cut deep. The trauma has subsided or gone away. None of which are true.

However, since there is no process that reintegrates trauma victims back into society, we and the people we interact with are never told that it is okay to be okay. We are trapped in a perpetual state of grief and others unintentionally police that.

By medicalizing grief and failing to recognize the power of ritual in the grieving process, some forms of grief become permanent fixtures. Those in mourning are socially trapped in these states as it never becomes apparent when the mourning period is over, the end of the period is not communicated to others, and those that experience trauma always remain in a liminal state, always differentiated from the rest of society in nearly imperceptible ways. This has a huge mental, emotional, and spiritual cost. I can tell you from personal experience, it is absolutely exhausting.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. naihcalappa says:

    It is so hard to put into words the struggles of every day life and interactions while mourning the life you had. I agree, it’s absolutely exhausting!!!! We all have to remember that everyone deals with grief and trauma differently, and we cannot judge ourselves against those traveling this path.


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