Reframing The Stories that Traumatize Us

In my first pastoral call, there was a family in town who’d gathered for Thanksgiving at Grandma’s House since it was difficult for her to travel. She was in her 80s and fragile. She lived just down the road from the church building.

After dinner prepared by her children and grandchildren, she announced that she was taking a nap. About two hours later, someone checked on her and found that Grandma had died in her sleep. There were several options for framing this family narrative:

Narrative One – What a great way to die – in your sleep after a feast with loved ones.

Narrative Two – Thanksgiving is forever ruined because it’s the day Grandma died.

  • Narrative Two-A – I am so angry at Grandma for destroying Thanksgiving.
  • Narrative Two-B – I’m furious at Mom for letting Grandma eat so much pie.
  • Narrative Two-C – Why did Dad insist we all play Monopoly while Grandma napped? If we’d played Taboo, the game would have been shorter and someone would have checked on Grandma earlier.

Regrets and second-guesses and blaming ourselves and others can go on and on in our family storytelling – until somebody helps us see the story with a different perspective.

This is why we need therapists. They help us reframe our experiences – even those traumas that stay with us.

I’m not saying that trauma can be forgotten easily. I’m not saying that those who’ve traumatized us should be quickly forgiven without protecting ourselves from future anguish.

I’m saying that our perspective is not always the intended or true perspective. Sometimes what we saw and heard and remembered are not the whole story.

A brief “death note” was found on the phone of the Walmart shooter in Virginia last week which included these words: “I was harassed by idiots with low intelligence and a lack of wisdom. The associates gave me evil twisted grins, mocked me and celebrated my down fall the last day.” According to Walmart employees and victims’ family members, the fallen included “a kind man and loyal employee” (Randall Blevins), “an outgoing, social man who battled a brain condition and spent 10 years working at Walmart” (Brian Pendleton), and “a hardworking father of two” (Lorenzo Gamble.) The shooter, who was a supervisor, was considered both “overly aggressive” and “friendly” depending on who you ask. For another example, watch The Patient on Apple TV. There is a young man who sees every facial expression or comment as an offense against him by strangers and acquaintances. He becomes a serial killer.

I write these things today because many of us are angry, anxious, and unforgiving. Many of us have been traumatized by others via gaslighting, rumor, betrayal, and run-of-the-mill neglect. Some of us are upset enough to take out our grief and fury on others.

Things can be different. With Advent we welcome new possibilities.

Starting with a God willing to show up in human skin, we are invited to reframe our own stories. That parent who was “never home” when we were children might have been working extra hard to provide for us. That teacher who picked on us might have been kicking our backsides to reach our potential. That family story we tell might be retold in a way that brings relief and even joy.

Again, there are indeed mean and cruel people in the world. And there are also people who’ve tried to do their best but their best disappoints. And there are also people who’ve royally screwed up which impacted our lives too.

Reframing the stories of our lives might help us move forward.

How wonderful that that grandmother died on Thanksgiving Day after celebrating a feast with the people she loves the most. Thanks be to God.

Image Source.

One response to “Reframing The Stories that Traumatize Us

  1. My sister, living in her own apartment, driving her own car, came home from shopping for Christmas gifts for her great grandchildren. She unloaded the presents, made a pot of coffee, put on her slippers, and between the kitchen and bathroom, collapsed and died. I know she would have been so happy to have gone just like that. Her daughter-in-law could not understand my gladness at such a tragedy. I was very saddened by my sister’s death, and I miss her every day, but I know she died just as she had lived, doing the things she loved. What more can we ask for…


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