Nothingness. That is the predominant emotion and state of being that occurs following tragedy and trauma. That feeling that no matter what you are trying to accomplish in your life, you’re left a hollow shell of who you once were. This feeling of nothingness of being completely void of everything you thought you were can be devastating. Completely losing your identity to trauma leaves us disoriented, confused, and vulnerable. This is one of the scariest aspects of the hollow feeling…knowing on a deep and intimate level that you are lost and vulnerable in a way that you never believed was possible before. The pull to protect ourselves again after a trauma is so strong that often we pull inside ourselves and the emptiness because what’s outside is more terrifying than the dark shadow that grows inside.
Before something horrible happens, most of us generally felt as if we had a good grasp of who we are, our identity seemed secure and we took strength and felt safe in that knowledge. None of us expected that trauma would happen, and we definitely did not anticipate the hollowness that comes after having your whole life shattered into millions of pieces. In fact, after trauma, most of us attempted to resume life as usual, to get back into the life we had before. While it is therapeutic to begin living your life again, biting and clawing your way back into your previous existence is futile and can be even more painful. Because the truth is that no matter how great your life was before you experienced trauma, that life is gone. The hollowness is a reminder that everything we understood before is no longer accurate and in order to move forward, we have to accept that life from now on is a new kind of normal.
When I first experienced this gnawing and aching nothingness existing in the hollow shell of my identify, I felt defeated and hopeless. Not only did I feel robbed of my innocence and my potential in life, I was devastated that I could not wrap my head around this emptiness. I felt broken beyond belief, but I also felt angry at myself for not being able to just “bounce back.” This is a feeling that I hear most often from people. That they feel shame and self-hatred because they “should be able” to just be ok. This is especially true when they did not suffer physical harm as a result of the tragedy, as is the case with me. Being an observer of tragedy or experiencing it but not being physically harmed results in pain as if you had been physically wounded. There is a intricate connection between our minds and the way our bodies work. Trauma can cause physically debilitating pain as well as mental anguish that is just as real as the person who was physically hurt. The problem is that our society and sometimes our closest friends and family expect that if you are not suffering from physical wounds, you have no reason to be suffering at all. When you are walking through your life after tragedy, basically like a soulless zombie, it is less than helpful to be told that you have no reason to feel bad and should “get over it.” This is something I experienced often while I was drowning in my nothingness, in my non-existence, and it did nothing but fuel the self-hatred and shame, drawing me deeper into the darkness.
What I have learned from my journey, is that that hollowness, being a shell of who you once were, can actually be a blessing instead of a curse. I thought I had everything about myself figured out and had a plan to finally break out of the rut I felt I was in. What my trauma and the challenging path to healing taught me is that I really had no idea of who I was or what my heart was crying out for. If I had never experienced tragedy and had stayed on the course I was traveling at that time, I am almost positive that I would be nowhere near to where I am now. My hopes and dreams that I had before the trauma are valid and would have been a great path for me to travel, but I don’t think I would have ever truly understood my calling had I not gone through hell and come out the other side. The hollowness that comes after trauma invites us to look at ourselves, to stop and take an inventory of our life and who we were. It offers us a chance to rebuild our identities and redefine who we are. For some of us, that is a daunting and terrifying idea, but for most of us, reevaluating priorities and who we are is necessary for success and pursuing who God calls us to be. Because that is the secret to the hollowness, to coming out of it and beginning to live a healed and hopeful life again. When no one else is there in our zombie existence, God is. He never left our side, and while we are in our most painful moments in life, God, the Healer and Comforter, is walking right there with us, holding the pieces of our shattered lives together until we can find the strength to begin to fill the emptiness again.