A Note on Dealing with Death & Dying, Trauma & Tragedy

At a recent workshop on ‘Trauma in Everyday Life,’ a psychologist spoke about big ‘T’ and little ‘t’ trauma.  Big ‘T’ trauma is what we commonly refer to when speaking of serious accidents, war, death, etc. In its most severe form, big ‘T’ trauma can lead to post-traumatic stress. On the other hand, little ‘t’ trauma refers to the everyday violence we encounter, such as being teased, losing a pet or a job, being picked last in a group activity, receiving negative comments on a blog. While such experiences may seem irrelevant to onlookers, their impact can often still be significant.

In the past eight months, I have experienced my fair share of both types of trauma. From the tragic loss of a young friend who fell to his death while on a hike, as well as the recent passing of my mother-in-law. To the oddly regular and mostly invisible occurrences of sexism, racism, and ageism. Like most people, I am trying to make sense of this thing we call ‘life,’ when faced with such tragedies.

The psychologist at the workshop had us close our eyes.

“Take a deep breath….and another….

Feel your feet on the floor….the hardness of your shoes and the surface they sit on…the soft and giving texture of the carpet.

Open your eyes…name 3 colors you see…now name 3 textures you see.

Listen….what are you hearing? My voice, the projector, the air conditioning…”

She led us in this short exercise on presence and mindfulness, by engaging our senses and taking just a few moments to take in the sights, sounds and feelings in our body. How is it we continue living day by day with the trauma of everyday life? By taking the time to breathe, checking in with ourselves, and being realistic with ourselves and others about our current state. By exercising perspective about the daily trauma and tragedy we must endure, and allowing ourselves to sit with sadness and heartache. By exercising gratitude for this experience of such extreme emotions, as well as recognizing the opportunity to survive and move forward.

In college, the largest and most crowded class I took was an anthropology course on ‘Death & Dying.’ It is no wonder why such a topic would be of interest to so many. As humans, we are faced with the inevitability of our demise. In this class, we surveyed history and cultures to gauge how death has been approached through time and place. A trend that stood out in our studies, at least in Western societies, was the slow and incremental distancing of the living from the dead. Once upon a time, cemeteries were the heart of towns. Lush grass filled areas, where families could picnic, and visit with friends. Now, it is commonplace for our graveyards to be on the brinks of our cities, out of the way, requiring a special trip to visit the dearly departed. It’s as if our physical distance from the dead, assists us in putting off our own death, or at least the thought of it. Yet it is only through the experience of sorrow that we can truly grasp the preciousness of this life.

As I continue to sit in this state of bereavement, holding my family close, and acknowledging the value of every passing minute, I will also struggle to persevere. To find my new norm, in the absence of my friend and mother. To take the time I have and make the most of it. I’ll stop, take a deep breath, and take in my surroundings. I’ll make a list of things I’m grateful for. I’ll send a thank you note to someone who is not expecting it. I’ll call my parents at an odd hour to see what they are up to. I’ll hug my dogs until the squeezing makes them uncomfortable. I’ll picnic with friends at the cemetery.


 If you are recovering from trauma of any sort, and would like support, please consider one of these resources:

Vanessa Gomez Brake (Stanford University)

Vanessa Gomez BrakeVanessa is Co-President of the San Francisco Bay Area Humanists. Currently, she serveson the Board of the North American Interfaith Network, and is on staff at Stanford University’s – Office for Religious Life.  Previously, she worked at The Chaplaincy Institute, An Interfaith Seminary in Berkeley. Vanessa holds a M.S. from the School for Conflict Analysis & Resolution at George Mason University, and bachelor degrees in Psychology and Religious Studies from Arizona State University. In 2014, she graduated from The Humanist Institute‘s – Leadership Graduate Certificate program.

One response to “A Note on Dealing with Death & Dying, Trauma & Tragedy

  1. Dear Vanessa Gomez Brake:
    It was w. pleasure I discovered that you’re currently a member of NAIN. I was myself, in the 90’s, on the Board, representing Canada and Buddhism. At 80, I’m now in retirement.

    But reading the title of your article, I thought my recent piece on Doping w. Death might be of some minor interest. Please go to Academia.edu, and look for me. If you have difficulty locating it, pl let me know. Thank you.

    I would thank you to send me your comments upon reading it. And if you think if suitable, I hope you’ll share it w. your colleagues.

    Thank you, and wishing you the best in health and happiness!
    Prof. Sugunasiri
    (I retain the title to encourage N America to respect knowledge.)


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