On a recent walk through my neighborhood, I came across a cut-down tree (above). It was an ordinary tree, but the sight of it grabbed my attention in an unusual way. Perhaps it was the burnt orange color of its exposed, inner flesh contrasted against a bleak northeastern winter backdrop, or maybe it was because in its beauty and its brokenness, I saw a humble reflection of myself. Still, I was magnetically drawn to the slashed tree lying on the ground.
As I diverted my course to get a closer look, my brain felt confused. A silent dialogue ran through my mind as my brain searched its hard drive for what I was “supposed” to feel. Was I sad a tree, as old and majestic as this one had lost its life to the hands of a chain saw? Was I thankful a sick tree and a danger to our community was removed? Was I struck by the beauty of the intricate patterns on the bark and the life rings within its trunk? Was it weird for me to think it was beautiful and worthy of a photograph? The wood chips and sawdust left carpeting over the frozen earth, welcoming a bird or squirrel to rest their haunches. For that, I felt certain awe and gratitude. But without knowing why the tree was cut down, I was standing there, admiring it without any clear explanations.
The tree just laid there, doing seemingly nothing, but it stirred something in me. It laid there, fully broken, on display, its life seemingly over, and yet maintaining all of its beauty, power, and respect, as if it was still towering tall over its roots. And there it was, my uneasy mind could rest. I had to acknowledge that within this brokenness a resounding beauty I couldn’t deny did exist.
As I browsed over the pieces, my thoughts became more convicted that within loss and tragedy, there is still the opportunity for peace, strength, and wonder to exist. My mixed emotions that morning were not as clear cut as this tree, although I wanted them to be. I couldn’t silo my emotions into slices or chunks that never touch. My emotions overlapped and intertwined like the roots of a tree that are out of sight, but still vitally present. In fact, even with the tree now sliced into wooden wheels, I almost forgot that the roots remained stiffly in the earth. The roots were still there.
My time spent looking at this tree was an example of how within the roots of our personhood, we can feel deep despair with twinges of hope. Sadness with relief. Anger softened by regret. Seeds of fear tucked inside our outer confidence. We can sense disgust mingled with pleasure, longing immersed in hate, and abandonment amidst pushing others away. We can even feel joy while struggling to cope with grief. And long after the tree trunk is loaded into a wood chipper, the roots will remain. That’s how it is with traumatic events. In the aftermath of something horrible, the threat may be gone, the funeral may be over, but the feelings are left behind, tangled and rubbing up against all the other parts of who we are now, who we were then, and whom we choose to become. The trauma is still there.
When we not only allow uncomfortable feelings to exist, but acknowledge them as our internal messaging system, that often goes on the fritz, we can begin to heal. We use devices, substances and behaviors to distract ourselves from this internal messenger. But when we accept and observe the messenger for what it is, we relieve the constant knocking at our door. We can find gratitude for our emotions, for without them, our life would be as gray and as bleak as a northeastern winter walk.
* Beth Tyson is a psychotherapist, mom, child welfare advocate, and author who recently published the children’s book, A Grandfamily for Sullivan. While working as a family therapist in the child welfare system, she realized over half of her caseload was grandparents raising their grandchildren. She could not find any children’s books on this topic and decided to publish her own. Her book is a therapeutic tool for children impacted by loss and trauma. It is a tender-hearted story that opens the door to honest, age-appropriate conversations about loss, family separation, and how to cope when a child’s big emotions take over. A Grandfamily for Sullivan, is a hopeful story that builds empathy and awareness for the 2.8 million grandfamilies in the U.S. Please visit her at www.bethtyson.com.