Sparking: staying connected after trauma

What will you see when you look back?

Some years ago I met an elderly woman who asked me that question. She had recently left her husband of 40 years. Her husband had abused her physically and mentally from the onset of their relationship. She described to me that the worst part of what he had done to her was the isolation he had placed her in. He hadn’t allowed her to have any friends and had also pulled her away from the once strong and important connections within her own family. He was the only person she had in her life and that sole relationship was based on fear and control. She was terrified of him and did whatever he wanted her too. Yet whatever she did was never good enough. She would always pay a price for her “mistakes” often in the form of a beating, whether it be a verbal or physical one. She lived alone and in fear. She had completely forgotten who she had been before being with him. Then he died of a massive heart attack 3 days after their 40th wedding anniversary.

She told me that the day after his funeral she made a decision about her life going forward. She was going to spend the rest of her days engaged in connection with others. No matter how short the time or seemly trivial the interaction, she was going to “spark”. She explained that she called connecting with another “sparking”. The checkout girl at Walmart, a stranger on the sidewalk, a friend she hadn’t talked to for years….anyone and everyone she encountered throughout her day she was going to attempt to make a connection with. She told me that it was something she did thru her eyes. That she would meet someones gaze and look hard into their eyes. That she would attempt a soul to soul conversation. That she would listen to understand not to reply. 

I asked her if she really believed that these little connections really made a difference in her life. She answered my question with hers; “When you come to the end of your time here on earth and look back…..what will you see when you look back?”

I paused not really understanding what she meant. Sensing my confusion she told me that when people reflect back on their lives that it is the relationships they had with others that they remember most. Not the careers they held, possessions they owned, or even places they had been. She said that a life lived in isolation was one of darkness. That all those little tiny sparks throughout each of her days matter. That when she looks back now those sparks have made it a life filled with light. 

When one is afflicted with PTSD one of the most devastating parts is the isolation. We feel sick so do not feel like being around others. Not being around others plunges us further into the depths of depression and anxiety. We feel alone and like no one understands us. This is the darkness, the lack of connection….no sparks….no light.

The power of peer support is in reestablishing these connections. These connections become life lines with other people who truly understand and can provide the empathy, not sympathy, those suffering truly hunger for. There is tremendous power in one human being reaching out to another and simply telling them they understand, they care, and they will sit with them in the darkness. It can be the difference between feeling understood rather than judged. The difference between feeling hope rather than despair. The very difference between life and death. 

The path out of the darkness is known. It is a path lit by the sparks of love. 

What will you see when you look back?