How long does it take to get over severe trauma?

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I must confess my struggle with the constant question “how are you?” It comes at us every day, many times a day. It happens at really any place humans gather. It also comes with a certain felt obligation to respond in kind, even when you don’t want to. At least it does for me. But even more pernicious can be the question when we struggle in seasons of grief, trauma, or severe trauma. Because then people ask it in a version that comes out, “how are you now?”

Implied in that is the idea that somehow we should be having a recovery, that we should be different, fixed from our problem. But there is no statute of limitations on grief, no time period where we are better. Grief means we are struggling with loss, and loss will never end. Yes, there will be a new season, a new and fresh grace, new additions to our lives perhaps. But the scars and loss remain. The trauma, though less perhaps in its magnitude, becomes a part of who we are, adding a richness and depth that though unwanted, still remains. (see my blog post Our scars remain).

As I blogged about recently, the Rwanda Genocide happened 25 years ago during this three month period. Over 800,000 lost their lives in a killing spree of horror and agony. Yet 25 years later, the nation has become an example to Africa and the world of how to cope with the most severe trauma and keep going in forgiveness and grace. But there have been many living casualties, those that have been wounded and scarred by the extreme violence.

One of those whose recovery has been long and hard, if you can even call it recovery, is the man who was the United Nations commander in Rwanda at the time. His name is Romeo Dallaire, and his story of fighting his own darkness is told in a recent book, Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD. Several years ago I read his first book on what happened in 1994, titled Shaking Hands with the Devil. The way he was left by the international community to face the horrors of the Genocide is told in a highly compelling way.

But this latest book is even more deeply searing in its honesty and authenticity. The continued severe trauma he went through when he came back to Canada is shared in detail, including the cost his family endured as well. Dallaire relates how he coped with the trauma, particularly through non-stop work, and slowly came to realize that his battle was real, and it had a name. Largely unknown at the time, and now much more understood, is the struggle of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Called in previous generations things like shell-shock, this very real condition is now being addressed for veterans and others on the frontlines of very real wars, military or emotional in nature. Dallaire himself has helped greatly to bring more awareness in Canada and beyond.

I encourage you to read this painful but important book. It brings up the question, do we really ever “get over” severe trauma, or grief of various kinds? Of course the ability to cope expands, the pain lessens. But the scars do remain, and sometimes more than scars. Wounds can fester or go unaddressed, like they did with this good man who endured such horror in Kigali in 1994. For many years, he knew something was very wrong, he knew he wasn’t “getting better”. Even now, as he writes in the book, he isn’t so much “better” as he is much more able to integrate all he went through with his ongoing life. And through that he finds energy to help and serve others in similar seasons.

Yes, the scars remain. And sometimes the wounds as well. I deeply appreciate the honesty of Romeo Dallaire. May he continue to be a source of hope and grace to all he meets.

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