Newtown, CT: Trauma Without Words

December 19, 2012 Michele Rosenthal

In the wake of the Newtown, CT, tragedy last week I’m reminded again how fragile language is in our moments of deepest shock and despair. ‘Pain’, ‘grief’, ‘loss’, ‘shock’ hardly begin to scratch the surface of what it means to live through a traumatic event and then face the task of learning to live after it.

In the wake of my own trauma, I acutely felt the absence of words.

When Language Fails Us


When asked to discuss my experience all that came to mind was one long scream. There were no words to describe, convey or express what I had survived, what I was thinking, or even a smidgeon of what I was feeling. In fact, it was emotion that I felt so overwhelmingly, not a strong need for the facility for words.

Indeed, trauma can impact the left prefrontal lobe, which is the language center of the brain. This makes it incredibly difficult to translate experience and feelings into a linguistic form of communication. As a coping mechanism after trauma, it’s entirely normal to suppress feelings and thoughts related to the event. Doing so further distances survivors from an ability to use language.

For those of us who are on the outside, too, words can seem incredibly flimsy in offering meaningful support. "I'm so sorry," for example, is so exhaustingly inadequate in its ability to make a difference or lessen the pain. I think of Newtown, CT, today and understand that language – despite all of the media coverage – will fall short.

If language barely suffices in times like these, how do we comfort the survivors and their families? How do we provide support for those who lost a loved one and now need to heal? You always hear me say, “We don’t heal in isolation; we heal in community.” Now is the time for our community – in its greatest global sense – to make a difference for those in pain and for us all who are witnessing the tragedy and pain of others. You are one person who has the ability to affect many. Today is a good time to figure out how.

When language isn’t enough we must find other ways to communicate. Whether you are in a position to connect with Newtown survivors, or you are struggling with your own trauma, triggers or the pain of a loved one, there are things you can do to make a meaningful difference during this traumatic time. Many of those gestures don’t require a single word. A few ideas:

  • Give someone you love an extra and tight hug
  • Cry with someone who is in pain, or offer to hold them while they cry
  • Design a memorial ritual
  • Smile at people you barely know
  • Compose music that fills the absence of words
  • Snuggle with a pet or loved one
  • Draw a beautiful picture
  • Invite someone to dance
  • Play a musical instrument with more passion than ever before
  • Share your gifts with someone who will benefit from them

This is just a short list to get you started thinking how you can effectively connect and communicate without language. You can use this list to begin thinking outside the box of words and inside the larger box of connection and community.

We are human. Across races, cultures and religions we exist in a world that does, sometimes, cause enormous heartache. In those times our best response can be to honor the heart that aches, witness with it, and hold it steady as it seeks its path to healing.

We can’t necessarily ease pain and suffering for those who have survived something awful. However, through many gestures we can let them know we stand beside them. In the most challenging moments the biggest fear can be that you are all alone. Today, through a wordless gesture, let someone know that you are there.

Michele is the author of Your Life After Trauma: Powerful Practices to Reclaim Your Identity. Connect with her on Google+, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and her website,

APA Reference
Rosenthal, M. (2012, December 19). Newtown, CT: Trauma Without Words, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Author: Michele Rosenthal

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