The Truth About Grief : Excerpts

The Truth About Grief : Excerpts


By Herb Orrell

Why We Blame Ourselves for Trauma

What possible value could self-blame have in the recovery process from trauma? Dr. Melvin Learner, a crime victim psychologist at the University of Waterloo, answers that question this way: "People believe that they live in a Just World and they will do almost anything to protect that belief."

When we understand the preeminent position the Just World belief has held in our collective consciousness throughout the ages, it begins to make sense why most of us feel there is no price too great to protect it-even denying our own innocence.

The idea of a Just World (known to most of us by the familiar saying, "You reap what you sow") is among the most ancient of all beliefs. It has influenced social mythologies, judicial systems, and religions as far back as the Code of Hammurabi (circa 4000 BC).

At a personal level, believing in a fundamental order and fairness at work in the world and a direct cause-and-effect relationship between choices and results has provided people with an emotional infrastructure that gives life meaning and creates a sense of stability and personal safety.

The Just World belief has had enormous influence on human spirituality. Because our understanding of love is so closely connected to ideas of fairness, predictability, and trust, the assurance that we live in a Just World has long been a necessary prerequisite for faith in a loving God.

Part of the attraction of this belief is its simple logic: good choices bring safety and spiritual wholeness, bad choices bring danger and separation from God. This apparent simplicity, however, is deceptive. "You reap what you sow" is an all-or-nothing proposition that must be applied to each of life's circumstances or it cannot be applied at all. Selective application will, in time, cause the system to crumble.

To maintain their innocence and insist that a traumatic event was unjust and undeserved, a victims must relinquish rights to the Just World belief system and, by default, any faith they might have had in a loving God. In addition to any philosophical or theological implications, accepting blame for trauma has numerous practical advantages. The most basic is damage control. If it is true that we can bring trauma upon ourselves, then we should be able to take appropriate actions to prevent trauma from recurring in the future.

Taking personal responsibility for trauma makes the event smaller and more manageable-it cuts the problem down to size. If suffering is seen as a legitimate by-product of a personal failure rather than evidence of a system failure, it is far less catastrophic. Although we may have incurred physical, economic, and psychological devastation, our belief in a Just World, safe universe, and loving God can remain intact.

You can fight for your innocence if you must. Go ahead; make a fist and scream at the heavens. But be aware of the consequences. No one will stand by your side, no one will fight with you. There are no religious beliefs in this world that will welcome and support your innocence, no sacred rituals or ceremonies, no mythology or traditions to lean on. Even if you prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that your suffering is unearned, you are left with only one chilling conclusion: Regardless of your behavior, this unJust World leaves you vulnerable to unpredictable, meaningless and random violence. That thought is usually more than the human heart can bear.

What takes place then, in the depths of the grieving process, is a kind of brass-knuckles back room plea-bargaining. Faced with the impossible task of not only defending our innocence, but also living with our innocence, we plead guilty hoping to receive a reduced sentence.

This last reason may be the most important one of all. The self-blame strategy can do much more than just get us functioning again. Blaming ourselves for trauma can actually make us a "better person."

The search for meaning begins with a rigorous moral inventory. We comb through every shadowy corner of our lives, our thoughts, our dark secrets in an effort to identify the root cause, that one particular sin or character flaw for which we are being punished.

After we determine the root cause (there's always something to pin it on), we then set out to change it. But we don't stop there. Driven by fear of recurring trauma, we launch a self-improvement campaign looking for ways to be more ethical, honest, caring; a better parent, spouse, friend, worker, and churchgoer. "Hard times make us stronger" is not just a sentimental needlepoint hanging over a cozy fireplace. It can really happen.

Self-blame doesn't happen without a struggle. We don't do it easily, and typically we don't do it out loud. It is a deeply personal and private decision-the "hidden" stage in the grieving process. In the end, however, we accept blame for our suffering because it is the most effective strategy we have for protecting what is really important to us.

Why the Grieving Never Ends

We don't realize at first that taking blame for trauma is risky business. The recovery process we sign up for turns out to be a kind of delicate high-wire act. At the end of the wire the faint outline of our new life waits to embrace us. Getting there is a question of balance.

There are many slippery spots on this narrow wire. Fear, uncertainty, sadness, loneliness, and depression can make us lose our footing. The most difficult adjustments of all, however, are the doubts.

Invariably we will second-guess our decision. Although we have confessed our guilt, we may not be completely convinced of it. There will be haunting reminders that we made this agreement in the heat of battle, under extreme duress. Was it really our own free decision? Or was it a forced confession, a conditional surrender, an act of malicious compliance? Did the punishment fit the crime?

Just when we think we might be getting better, a sound, a stranger's face, a picture in a magazine-any number of a thousand insignificant, unrelated triggers can launch us into fits of anger, anxiety, or depression. Memory is often our worst enemy, holding us hostage to the past, mercilessly replaying the event over and over again, making us relive every bitter detail.

Sooner or later we fall. Even the most dedicated and determined among us eventually caves in to the relentless pressures of sustaining this strategy day after day, year after year. It is only when we fall, however, that the real secret to this grieving process is revealed.

Stretched out beneath us has always been a tightly woven safety net of reassuring cultural attitudes, beliefs, and traditions; a vast array of Just World stories, myths, and folklore; and well-trodden spiritual paths of reconciliation and new birth based on confession and forgiveness. When our best efforts finally give out, we fall into the arms of a world that support and defend our decision and help us get back up on the wire again. With this safety net below us we never fell too far or too hard, and the balancing act could begin again, and again.

Over the years this safety net has faced many challenges. Science changed the shape of the earth and moved the sun to the center of our galaxy. Anthropologists found apes in our family tree. Priests and theologians questioned the divinity of Christ. Philosophers announced that God is dead.

Through these and countless other storms, the Just World belief persevered, faithfully fashioning for each successive generation a belief system in which every event had meaning and purpose, in which life itself was a kind of classroom offering each of us a series of carefully tailored individual lessons taught by a benevolent and loving God. The hope of trauma recovery was available to anyone, at a price most would pay.

The reason our grieving never seems to end is that the safety net we have depended upon for ages is coming apart at the seams.

Used With Permission from Unspeakable copyright@2003 by Herb Orrell

About the Author

Herb Orrell is an ordained pastor and author. For the past 20 years, Herb Orrell has been delivering a refreshing message offering hope, power, and understanding to many who have felt alone, impoverished and misunderstood. You can visit his website at

Read our review of Unspeakable: The Truth About Grief here.


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