Healing Trauma Through Writing

Elizabeth Pope, Writing Consultant

Writing is academic, scholarly, and creative in genres of poetry, prose, fiction, or creative non-fiction. Writing is publishable, presentable at conferences, or shoved into a drawer never to look at again. As a woman and first year Ph.D. student with an M.A. in English Literature and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, I value the integrity of writing as an art form. At the same time, I honor writing as an inclusive act of expression that extends beyond degree, career, or publication. Writing held my hand through tough times, and it is this practice of writing as an act of healing that transcends art, craft, or accolade. Writing is primordial as hieroglyphics and essential as meditation. Writing is also a friend, prayer, and eternal question.  

On February 11, 2022, I began to write again for the first time since the pandemic began after graduating in the summer of 2020 with my M.F.A. and entering the chaos of new systems of public virtual schooling for my daughters, while my husband worked as an essential worker within Covid-units, Covid-tent construction, and Covid-vaccine construction as an electrical contractor within hospitals. In February, I began a recovery journey with my daughter after her spinal fusion, years of physical therapy with Norton Neuroscience and Spinal Rehabilitation Center, and preparatory surgery appointments at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. When her spinal curve entered a degree that was detrimental to her heart and lungs, during the height of the pandemic, we had to wait until she was of age for vaccines to proceed with the spinal fusion with the intention of limiting possible complications. I was not able to write through this time of preparing for her surgery. It was hard to comprehend her vulnerability, complexity of the surgery, and pain of her recovery. It was not until her time in the hospital that I was able to speak about the actual surgery, ask her team of doctors about anatomy, and specifics of what occurred during her spinal fusion. I began to write about the process of her immediate post-surgery in the hospital during times that she slept without interruption from nurses, pain teams, or doctors. During these quiet and dim moments in the hospital room, I wrote about uncertainties, reliefs from a successful surgery, anatomy of the spine (an aspect that I was unable to confront until post-surgery was successful), and the hardships of seeing someone that I love in immense pain.

What I wrote in the late hours of the hospital room was what I was unable to verbalize with doctors, nurses, family, and friends. I wrote about the relief that overshadowed lack of sleep, uncertainty of home recovery, and life after post-recovery. In a pandemic and post-pandemic world the hospital is a healing but isolating place. It provides a quiet introspection that is lonely if an outlet is not provided. Writing was the healing outlet for me as art therapy was a healing outlet for my daughter and other patients. I was not singular in writing as a method of connecting with presence of the tasks at hand, fears of the possibility of what might have gone wrong, what was going wrong, or as a way to connect to support systems who were unable to visit the hospital during the de-escalation of heightened Covid-19 concerns. CaringBridge is a media outlet that is provided to parents, guardians, and caregivers who have patients within hospital settings.  

There are nights you can see screens within patient’s rooms glowing from parents updating their CaringBridge accounts for friends, family, or their child’s friends—who are also support systems outside of the hospital. Time seems to evaporate inside rooms of a hospital. Days are nights and nights are days. Moments are fast paced or desolate when the child is resting. It is in those quiet moments that writing in a journal, social media outlet, text, email, or mode of connection like CaringBridge provides parents moments of reflection and expression after hours, days, weeks, months, or years of attempting to remain calm and collected through high-stress environments. The act of putting what is unspoken to paper allows the stress of an experience to transform from what is carried, or what is afraid to be said, into an acceptance that is tangible. Writing, in this way, is a reconciliation with traumas that are unrecognizable and carried through complicated and demanding situations. Writing in this way is also a reflection, retrospection, and method of measuring what is overcome.

Writing, in a recovery or hospital setting, allows for articulate and direct conversations with doctors, teams, and nurses. Writing allowed me to move past emotional responses of worry, frustration, and sadness to arrive at rationality that allowed for focus on immediate questions such as: if her pain management is not working what other option might be enacted immediately? Writing is an act of presence and hope that if the trauma is shared—even if it is an unrecognizable trauma—it is no longer a secret, fear to harbor, or shame to suppress. In this way writing is an act of healing.

I did not keep any of the writings from the surgery, in hospital, recovery, or homecare recovery. I erased it all. Her struggle to process her own traumatic event was not something that I wanted her to relive or that I wanted to relive. Although she is fully recovered and the surgery is a distant memory, there was a time when our inability to communicate shared fears and grief was stalled. After the experience and anticipation of the surgery, writing offered moments of connection to what was difficult, hopes of a better life for someone that I loved, and reflections of strengths that I witnessed in my child. I wrote to remember moments when she encountered specific obstacles with bravery, such as when she began to walk again downstairs (one step, two feet at a time) when she walked long distances outside of a wheelchair, and when she ran and slid into a homerun in her softball league this summer. I wrote to remind her that obstacles in life are inevitable, she overcame them once, so in the future she will overcome them again. I wanted to remember moments that she did not give up, overcame something hard, and moments that it was important to simply listen and not speak except into paper and ink.

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