When Words Can Fail

Outside the perimeter of life’s expected stresses lies the potential for traumatic stress. Maria Shine Stewart reflects as an anniversary approaches.

September 9, 2011


One never really knows what our students, colleagues, subordinates or superiors have lived through. In my view: to err on the side of compassion and patience when dealing with others is, therefore, wise. To know even a bit about trauma is decidedly not to pose as a trauma therapist or researcher. It’s simply – and not so simply – part of the quest to be a good human.

In the past few days, I have talked to many colleagues about 9/11, the earthquake, the hurricane, and other profound losses.

I listen to their responses. I watch their eyes and the lines around their mouths. Sometimes I see confidence in responding to adversity; other times, I sense anguish.

The September issue of Counseling Today, sponsored by the American Counseling Association, has a skillfully written article by Lynne Shallcross examining various perspectives on how 9/11 shaped awareness of trauma in the public eye and even for counselors. I was glued to that article; understanding trauma better has been a goal I hold as a teacher, writer and family member of those who have experienced out-of-the-ordinary events.

I step toward the topic of trauma intermittently; then, I step away.

And even as resilient survivors and professionals know that not every survivor of trauma develops prolonged problems, and that not everything we commonly call “stress” is, in fact, trauma, to pretend that natural disasters, mass violence, accidents and other traumatic experiences, such as sexual assault, don’t take a toll on coping is, at least, unkind and – at worst – perilous.

I offer a few examples here drawn randomly from my professional life and to spark your own memories. I am not an expert -- merely an observer.


When I handed my student’s essay back, I was not sure what to say. It was the first time that, upon assigning a personal narrative, I had read an eyewitness account of gunfire heralding the start of civil war. What made this paper particularly gripping was the description of the auditory stimuli; the writer initially thought she was hearing fireworks. I can remember the image of her family crouching under the kitchen table, praying. Soon after, her family decided to send the student to the U.S. to study. This 17-year-old -- viewed with some awe by her classmates for her multilingual skills, intelligence and poise -- had pain in her eyes.

Handing her paper back, I offered simply: “This was a moving paper.”

She tried to reply and tears formed as she shook her head and said: “I can’t talk ….” She left quickly.

That second reminded me of looking right into the endless well of my own mother’s dark brown eyes. My mother survived the Nazi regime as a reluctant civilian and -- like my father, a Holocaust survivor -- rarely spoke of it. There is a kinship in suffering, even if circumstances differ.


Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, a student was temporarily on one of my Ohio campuses, which had a reciprocal agreement with her college. “She fits right in,” a fellow student who interviewed her had written cheerfully, with some surprise. And the student did -- even as I saw something deeply tired in her bearing. She spoke to the group only once -- briefly – about what she had seen.


A student in midlife entered the writing center stripped of emotion. Though puzzled, I proceeded. She lacked her prompt for her assignment; she had no syllabus. She answered questions in abrupt phrases. And then, she pulled out a meticulously written, expressive, fluent paper with her memories as a four-year-old, being told she could no longer use her native language in school and having to speak in a foreign tongue. It was one of the most powerful pieces of a voice-in-retrospect that I have ever read. And telling the story, she lost all reserve. Her face unfroze as she discussed her conclusion; she was pleased with her decision to come to the U.S. and raise her daughter “where children are free to speak.” She wanted reassurance that she had expressed herself on paper. She had.


”Recess has been canceled because planes are falling out of the sky,” said my third-grade son to one of my sisters on 9/11/01. I was within a few weeks of an auto accident that left me racked with pain and medicated. The reality of the day was slow to sink in; I would reflect on 9/11 several times a day – still trying to grasp it -- through a physical rehabilitation process that lasted several years. No words I possess can convey that destruction of human life and human accomplishment. The eloquence of Billy Collins’ “The Names,” which he delivered to Congress in 2002 and which I have read with classes whenever September 11 returns, gently signals pain we cannot fully articulate. Silence is natural, inevitable, fitting.

And yet, it’s never quite enough. Nor are words. The week of 9/11/01 I asked students if they wanted to write. Some did. But no one read what they wrote aloud. Not that year. I recently mentioned 9/11 to a colleague, who had served in the Armed Forces in his youth. “I can’t watch anything about 9/11 on TV,” he said. “Not after what I experienced in the service.”


As I approach, I observe the traditional lines of a monument, with an American flag in a clear case to the right. Smaller flags in flowerpots splash color three seasons of the year. I sit here when I want to contemplate the sacrifices of others and remove myself from the center of the universe. I am drawn to unique trees at this war memorial, striving to discern in their beauty and endurance a message. Liberty Elm, Gettysburg American Sycamore, Tulip Poplar and National Champion Olympic Red Ash. The last was planted in memory of those who lost their lives in 9/11. Nearby, traffic whizzes, butterflies linger, and birds sing. “We continue to add names,” a city official told me, as other local residents lose their lives in war. The names are also place names, school names, street names — no coincidence. Each name connects to a family left behind to grieve and a family that will never be.


Cultivating awareness of trauma as part of the human condition – as well as the variegated responses to it – can be important. Knowing some tools for coping with departures from expected reality can improve our well-being and help those around us. Stevan E. Hobfoll, the Judd and Marjorie Weinberg Presidential Professor and professor and chairperson of the department of behavioral sciences at Rush Medical College, in Chicago, has written and co-written books and articles on traumatic stress. He suggested in a phone interview that members of a campus community not be “avoidant” if they sense that a colleague or a student might be carrying anguish. Counseling might be suggested, for example.

Five intervention principles that Hobfoll and an international team proposed in a 2007 article in Psychiatry include: “promotion of a sense of safety… promotion of calming… promotion of a sense of self-efficacy and collective efficacy… promotion of connectedness… and instilling hope.” He said that the website at the National Center for PTSD may be helpful for some as a start. “We have an excellent therapy -- exposure therapy,” Hobfoll added, with the caveat that though that may stir things up initially--with an increase in distress—emotional progress can be made. And he warned that repeated traumatic stresses may take a toll on even those who might seem impervious to stress initially or people “who are resilent … [who] keep rising to the top,” This segment of trauma survivors has been of particular interest to Hobfall throughout his research career.

And he offered positive words about how far America has come since 9/11/01. “There is a lot to celebrate – going on 10 years without another major attack,” he said. “Our democracy holds together.”

He observed that -- at any given moment -- the number of those around us suffering from personal trauma probably is substantially greater than those affected by natural disasters or massive violence.


Life has sun but most decidedly also shadow. And knowing that is not “just” kindness. It’s reality.


Maria Shine Stewart teaches writing on three campuses and works as a contributing editor/writer for a northeast Ohio business publication. This is part of a column, A Kinder Campus, that explores human relations in the academy. It offers anecdotal and research support for the idea that when we work kinder, we work better. Workplace morale, civility, and collegiality count. Goodwill is free, so stock up and spread it around. Topic suggestions are welcome. Contact [email protected].


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