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After Trauma: 'Why Me?'

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I recently received an email from a mother of a disabled child. And like almost anyone who experiences trauma, she continually asks: "Why me?" But somehow she knew this question only made her feel worse, she wanted to know when I stopped asking myself that question. She knew that I had been a quadriplegic for 30 years and had endured many other significant losses. So she assumed I no longer ask that question.

It turns out I do still ask that question, but from a very different perspective. I'll explain later.

She went on: "I struggle so much with the thought that I must have done something wrong in order for this to have happened to our family. I constantly ask myself whether it was too selfish of me to want just one more healthy child. When, if ever, do these feelings go away?"

Funny thing about us humans, we go through life assuming that it is organized and predictable. We even go so far as to assume that tomorrow will look pretty much like today. So when trauma turns everything upside down, the question "Why me?" assumes that the world is still organized and we just haven't figured out the rule yet. We ask that question of God, the universe, the spirits or nothing in particular. We want to know how this happened and why it happened to us. And since most humans also believe the world is managed and predictable, we answer that question by saying, "It happened for a reason." Unfortunately, that answer rarely makes us feel better (unless we are the ones saying it).

But we must ask that question because our universe just went from calm to chaos and our brains don't tolerate chaos very well. So we try to create order. After all, thinking that what happened to us was a random event that we have no control over is probably too much to handle -- in the short run anyway.

We try to create order by blaming someone or something. We can blame God and sometimes even blame the victim. But usually we blame ourselves, irrational as it may be.

All of this is an effort to calm our brains and try to make sense of our lives. So if we tell ourselves it happened because we did something wrong or didn't do something we should have done, we feel awful. But everything is orderly. We convince ourselves we know how this happened and why. Cause, effect, suffering but organized.

Those who do well in the wake of trauma are able re-order their lives. With time and support, they are able to release their grasp of yesterday and rebuild their vision of tomorrow. Many reorder their lives by taking their suffering and create meaning. People who have deep religious beliefs often have faith that the universe remains orderly and is in God's hands. The research shows that they tend to recover from, more quickly.

People who find meaning in other ways also do well. So parents of disabled children may find themselves being more loving and compassionate or they might devote their lives to whatever cause will help similar children.

Many in wheelchairs devote their energies to trying to make the world a better place for those who are disabled.

Once the focus of our lens becomes wider, that "Why me?" question goes away. And turns into "What can I do to help?"

A couple of years ago I had an experience that has me again asking "Why me?"

I attended a lecture given by well-known Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissman Klein. She was on Hitler's death march, where the majority of her fellow prisoners died in the cold. On her 21st birthday, her friend Ilse presented her with a raspberry she had found earlier and saved it for Gerda's birthday.

Most of us were crying and she concluded her talk by saying: "When you approach your home tonight, look at it through the eyes of a homeless person. When you walk inside, open the pantry and see all the food and look at it through the eyes of someone who is hungry. And then look to the heavens and say, "Why me? What have I done to deserve all of this goodness and love I am surrounded with?"

Because of her, I ask that question every day.

For more by Dan Gottlieb, Ph.D., click here.

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