A Therapist Uses Her Grief as a Resource for Working with Trauma By Sarah Stauffer, PhD on 4/11/23 - 12:03 PM

A Place of Emotional Safety

My Mom recently posted photos on a social media site of birthday flowers that my and my sister’s family sent this year, along with others from years past. One of the photos showed flowers sitting in my grandparent’s kitchen.

Like what you are reading? For more stimulating stories, thought-provoking articles and new video announcements, sign up for our monthly newsletter.

Seeing the yellow cabinets and green tiles again brought back memories of cooking and baking with my grandmother in that kitchen. I can no longer smell the warm, sweet, and all-encompassing aromas that wafted effortlessly through their home but, as I remember them fondly, a sense of calm washes over me. My grandparents’ home was a safe place for me, where my creativity reined. When I was a young adult, my grandfather reminded me that I called their house “the happy place” when I was little. That description still fits for me today, though I can never revisit that place and time again like it was in my mom’s photo. After my last grandparent’s death, their house was sold to another family.

In the wee hours of this morning, I revisited that kitchen in the small interstice between sleeping and waking, simultaneously sensing the welcomed echo from my Mom’s flowers post and an invading sadness, tinged by a dull ache of homesickness from living so far from my family of origin and missing those who have died (several anniversaries of which have just recently passed). When the alarm on my smartphone sounded, I hit the snooze button to remain in the tenderness of the memory of that time where everyone still lived and gathered in that happy place, if only for a few more minutes.

The tinge of sadness, grief, and disenfranchised grief that grew as my consciousness expanded through the end of my intentionally prolonged dream reminds me that that place, as it was, and that time, when I was carefree and loved ones lived on, can no longer exist in my current reality.

The Privilege of a Happy Childhood

As I write this, I am aware of the privilege I carry to having had loving family members and safe places to rest my head, with food on the table every day and dessert in the oven on some of those days. That is not the case for many of my therapy clients, the majority of whom have experienced multiple forms of abuse embedded within precarious living situations that stagger fine lines between poverty and unintended negligence. Their grief, embedded within traumatic life events, is permeated by a kind of disenfranchisement that holds an invisible but unyielding grasp on their wellbeing and potential to positively evolve.

If grief could be described as ice cream, I would say it is quite like vanilla, a standard flavor, the most standard flavor. Everyone will eventually be served a scoop alongside some other more desirable option, whether they ask for it or not. Disenfranchised traumatic grief, then, would be like ribbons of lemon sorbet being folded into the mix with filaments of tart lemon zest that are neither easily seen (recognized) nor able to be dissociated from the rest of the scoop. The sting of the tartness sharpens the senses as one eats the part of the dessert, they neither ordered nor wanted in the first place but couldn’t push away once it was in front of them, either.

Several of my past and present child clients live in care situations outside of the homes occupied by their families of origin. They did not choose to be born; they did not choose to be neglected or abused; and they also did not choose to be removed from their families of origin, which represents another form of grief for them, though their circumstances did not promote healthy wellbeing or allow for a normal course of development. Often, their ambivalence oscillates between longing for the happy days they lived with their loved ones, which may have been few and far between, and wishing for something that never existed for them, in a mother that held them, made them feel wanted and loved or in a father that fixed boo-boos rather than creating them.

However, holding on to that place in my memory serves as a resource when I’m feeling down, discouraged, or otherwise off balance.

Memory as Resource

As Easter is nigh, revisiting my grandparents’ kitchen reminds me of dying eggs, baking cookies, and blending homemade orange slushies at the countertop with my grandmother. The sliding glass door from the kitchen opened to a small wooden porch at the back of the house. On that porch, I remember rubbing “motion” (my word for “lotion,” which was sunscreen) generously and gingerly on my grandfather’s head before he took me on the riding mower to cut the grass around the yard and over the hills behind their house.

At every turn past a small pompom tree that grew in the front yard, I would pull off a budding white flower or a leaf and squeal in delight as I put it on the hood of the riding mower and watched it shake off to the side with the vibration of the motor. I would usually finish the ride asleep on my grandfather’s lap, soaking in the sun from a warm summer’s day, not feeling a care in the world.

My grandmother’s death preceded my grandfather’s by 11 years. After my grandfather died, a young couple bought their house and land and made changes and new additions. Some changes were voluntary, like repainting the kitchen and rebuilding a bigger, sturdier deck onto the back of the house as an outdoor extension to the kitchen in summer months. Some changes were involuntary, but necessary, like removing the vestiges of trees that had died, which opened the landscape to reveal different views of the house and land.

My family has remained in contact with the new family in the house, and my mom has been on a walk-through tour of the updates and renovations they have made to the over-100-year-old house that she grew up in. I, however, do not believe I will ever be able to walk through it again, not because I wouldn’t be invited, but because I am afraid that it will change my capacity to continue to hold my happy place in my mind and heart.

As an expat living thousands of miles away, I count on my happy memories as resources to wash away the vanilla- and lemon-tinged grief that shows up on the dessert plate of my current existence, unwanted and unexpected, across the oceans and continents that divide me from my family back home. These memories, and the soul-nurturing feelings I can still feel upon revisiting this place and these people in my dreams, provide palate-cleansing relief to the sharp contrast of my therapeutic work with traumatized individuals and families.

So, in that short interstice between the still-sort-of-sleeping and not-quite-waking early hours of the morning, when a visit to my grandparents’ kitchen is ever-so-real and still possible, hitting the snooze button becomes a worthwhile endeavor, if only to hang on to a place and a time that does not exist anymore, except in my mind.


File under: Musings and Reflections