How the process of change can be traumatic to a veteran

On several occasions, I have spoken with individuals who shared their lack of understanding about emotions they felt during certain changes in their lives. It is true that even good changes like beginning a relationship, moving to a new house, changing a job or other “normal” transitions can promote some strange and interesting feelings. How might a veteran navigate typical changes like these?

Allowing space for veterans to experience trauma in transitions

Transitions can create trauma for veterans
Transitions can create trauma for veterans

As people process transition, they feel mixed emotions: those which look forward to change as well as those of loss in moving from one adventure to the next. In fact, there is some therapeutic merit to looking at change in the same way that one looks at grief and loss, because there are stages of grief as well as transitions.

Emotions associated with change can mimic those of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Thus, if we are unaware that we are experiencing grief and loss, consequences may arise to make the situation worse .

Recently, I spoke with a veteran who had gone through life-altering transitions.

He suffered a brain injury from an explosion, lost some of his vision, experienced partial memory, and totally lost his capacity to work a regular job. On top of that, he was in transition from years of military service to being rather isolated in his own family. Essentially, he felt separated from the comfortable camaraderie and mission-driven military environment.

I listened to him berate himself and formulate his own sense of responsibility. I listened to his wife talk about his “poor” attitude, which destroyed his family and home relationships. As he talked, I saw the losses in his life unfold on a daily basis and, quite honestly, he suffered five years (which included feelings of isolation, incapacity and purposelessness) while he transitioned to finding a new purpose that was never a part of his life plan.

When all was said and done, what I heard him do was blame himself, but he demonstratively assessed how that changed when he decided to accept responsibility for how he was impacting others. In other words, when he accepted responsibility for his actions and decided to change, then things began to change.

The grieving process: when transition can be traumatic

Did he, or anyone around him, give him credit for what he had been through, what the impact was to his ability and capacity, the processes of grief and loss and how he was navigating all the transitions?

As we encounter veterans in transition (or in fact anyone in transition), I think it is important to understand and affirm the transition, particularly when someone has lost capacity or purpose. It is important to have a healthy process, one in which the individual is permitted to experience the normal, documented stages of grief.

While each person needs to get to a place of acceptance to move forward, there is not an internal emotional “transition” switch that makes acceptance happen within a certain timeframe. In fact, different temperaments and personality types go through change differently.

What we do not want to see, particularly for individuals who have been traumatized, is an expectation from anyone that transitions even to a more realistic or healthy place are easy. There are substantial losses and family members, friends, social workers, and therapists need to insure proper space for individuals to experience and process transitions and the emotions and reactions that ensue.

Doing so will actually help these individuals heal faster. With time to transition, they will be able to reach acceptance and reengage into life in a healthy way. I think it will be so much easier for all who live or work with veterans (or trauma victims) if we have clarity about transition processes.

Clarity will help us align our expectations with what normal adjustments and the emotions of change can look like during significant transitions. Then our expectations accompanied by the support we give to those around us can be focused on the individual’s true experiences. There would be no need to have the blame, shame or guilt that accompanies those who are frustrated about being responsible. It is a process that we truly need to honor in those we care about.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

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