Trauma and The Phoenix

Life is good. The goal is to hold tight and keep this thought in front of you because sometimes it’s not. If you’ve lived sufficient time on planet Earth, this statement will mean something to you. If it doesn’t, prepare for it. We often discover that life is a flame, and we are its paper. We either become scattered ash – or a rising phoenix. I’ve often wondered what differentiates between the two. Is it simply a matter of being optimistic, resilient, or knowing that the good times will outweigh the bad in totality? For some people, yes. For others, not so much.

Most times, when we’re looking the other way, trauma strikes. Like driving along, minding our own business, maybe singing along to the music, and wham, our lives are turned upside – completely. Are all traumas equal – sometimes, it depends on its recipient. Some people seem to rebound after the most horrific, jaw-dropping stuff, while others are crushed by what is seemingly minor but to them insurmountable.

Life is not a flat line. If it were, we wouldn’t be living. It is filled with ups, downs, twists, and sometimes we’re tossed from the cart. We lull ourselves into a false sense that life is predictable, but it is anything but routine. Follow the rules, do this, don’t do that is how we create our sense of control over something that we cannot simply tame.

A key characteristic in defining a traumatic event is that it is a threat to life. But trauma comes in many forms. It could be sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, bullying, natural disasters like earthquakes, fires, floods, domestic or family violence, unexpected death of someone close, a serious accident or injury, life-threatening illness, major surgery, or war. Yet, there are other events that we might not think of as traumatic on the surface, but they can wreak just as much emotional upheaval. Losing a job, reputation or identity, divorce, loss of custody, financial ruin, isolation, a fallout with family or friends, or feeling a stranger in one’s Country. For some, retirement is traumatic because it brings a loss of societal relevance, and evidence suggests humiliation and rejection in social situations can cause trauma.

Some people never rebound because their lives are submerged under wave after wave of hardship. They can never find their footing and have no one to help them or do not see the hand offered. If we spoke with people who have problems with addictions or are homeless and genuinely listened to their narrative – tragedy breathes.

Still, others invite trauma and misfortune simply by indulging in behaviors that rarely have good outcomes (Read: drugs, alcohol, gambling, extremes, etc.). Sadly, though self-induced, most of these adversities are born from unaddressed trauma. People use maladaptive coping or self-medication, trying to numb their suffering.

When we think about the one trauma we cannot recover from – it is death. At least not in this dimension or place. Death is the final goal post on our journey. But between now and then, there will be challenges, calamities, and traumas. Rising like the phoenix is not simply a matter of flapping our wings or our mouths. It takes a lot to ascend from the ashes. We struggle lifting off from what was to what can be.

The phoenix symbolism appears in many cultures representing rebirth, resurrection, renewal, and triumphing over adversity, life’s flames, and even death. Some traumas such as abuse, especially those experienced by children, can lead to lifelong scarring. Without help navigating through the mental labyrinth of suffering, children can grow into suffering adults – because they see life through a lens of unworthiness or lack self-love. The trauma is absorbed at a cellular level of believing they aren’t the victim but deserving of what happened. That inner child who experienced the trauma needs to be heard, taken by the hand, and led away from past demons. Without this navigation, their past will cast a shadow over their future.

At times traumas can provide powerful life lessons, wake-up calls, or adjust our trajectory. In Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief, bargaining serves as the bridge between past and future. We make concessions, promises and commit to amending our ways during this stage. “If I survive this…I promise I will….” Some of us remember those promises and lose weight, stop drinking, or give up what nearly destroyed us. Some of us forget them, like the patient who dodges the lung cancer bullet and lights up a smoke upon discharge from the hospital. Denial is also one of the grief stages, and most of us live in a quasi-state of denial, thinking bad things only happen to the other guy. In a way, it is a protection mechanism because if we had to confront how fragile our lives, situations, and status actually are, we’d probably never want to step outside our homes. Seriously, think about driving. We’re counting on thousands of other people careening along at 60 MPH, with a 3,000-pound weapon – hoping we are never its target.

Recently, I know of someone who contracted COVID19 and was hospitalized for four days. It was the most protracted and painful four days of his life. The reality that the grim reaper could actually make a visit sank in. He had a crash course on life reflection, suddenly seeing where his priorities were messed up. He needed to lose weight and spend more time with his family. He said that he bargained with the Almighty. If he survived, he’d work and eat less. Time will tell if he follows through with his second chance promises. Most of us have been in tight situations bargaining for a positive result. The question is, did we live up to our end of the bargain?

Life is a four-wheel-drive vehicle: good fortune, tragedy, unfairness, and timing. All the wheels are moving. We typically don’t question the timing or fairness of our good luck or blessings. We scream like howler monkeys when we aren’t so lucky or suffer – the unfairness. But as we ride along in our four-wheel-drive vehicle, we should know that the road is paved with some constants: change, injustice, uncertainty, and challenge.
This article aims not to negate the beauty, wonder, and magnificence of life. We want to enjoy it to its fullest and squeeze out every drop possible. But we must recognize its fragility and finiteness. If we allow traumas to swallow us whole, our lives are reduced, experiences muted, and our contribution hamstrung. Some people have learned to compartmentalize closing off a mental door, so they can function. For the majority, if we are to rise from the ashes of our adversities, we must give our phoenix a name – MEANING. Through meaning, we create lift under our wings.

Finding or creating meaning within the folds of our traumas helps us come to terms with them, smoothing out the wrinkles of randomness. If we do not experience meaning, then life becomes a series of random events where we just helplessly get pulled along. Humans must make sense of the world around them, and at times it requires us to make sense of the senseless. According to Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, those who had a why to live survived compared to those who did not. Meaning provides a foundation from which to rebuild. It brings order allowing us to reassemble the pieces and find our way through the chaos. When we can find meaning – it becomes the salve over the wound of injustice. Meaning is the light you create to walk out of the tunnel.

Many who suffered from chemical addictions, abuse, or mental health challenges become wounded healers – helping others overcome their demons. When children die, parents become advocates of change – such as MADD, Amber Alert, and other causes. They donate organs to offer life or use their loss to become a better version of themselves. Within each life challenge, we can either lie down or become Paralympians, justice advocates, veterans helping veterans or any number of phoenix roles. People who are dying use their transition to symbolize grace and reduce fear in the witnesses. We cannot and should not suffer for no reason. We must ask why and, no matter how difficult, find an answer. We do not deny our trauma. We remove its power. “There are no mistakes, no coincidences. All events are blessings given to us to learn from.” – Elizabeth Kubler Ross.
When life gives you a challenge – give it meaning.


  1. Carolyn Grant says:

    What a beautiful reading. Trauma comes to us in so many different forms. Our experiences can surely be traumatic , but we learn so much. After 2 1/2 years I am only beginning to understand how traumatic it was for me. I am still trying to rebuild but know it is time for me to work on changes.
    Thank you for your beautiful words.

    • Thank you for your response. Many times we don’t recognize an experience as traumatic until we’ve had time to process its aftershock. I know you will find a way to make a difference. You already have.

  2. Cookie says:

    I know you’ve lived a bit less than me, all I add : Let’s all in-brace whatever the future holds Forever and ever! Amen..

  3. Karen says:

    Your words are received deeply rooted in healing broken hearts… and sharing vulnerabilities like a salve to sooth the suffering soul… thank you for your wisdom♡

  4. DaveW says:

    Great message! Meaning! Gonna think a lot about that going forward.

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