Dominique Zipper

Conversations on Trauma and Awakening: Dominique Zipper

Interviewed by Gabriella Evans
"To me, trauma is the non-negotiable becoming negotiable, without our consent."

Dominique is a writer and lawyer who has called five of Canada's provinces home. She is currently spending her days in the woods in Ontario with her partner and a crew of animals. She writes a Substack newsletter, pergola, about how it feels to be alive right now. Lately there have been a lot of thoughts on grief. You can read it at www.thepergola.ca.

*Written Submission*

Describe yourself in three words.

Introspective. Hopeful. Resilient.

How would those you love and respect you describe you?

Creative. Observant. Thoughtful.

What helps you feel safe and grounded?

It takes great skill to comfort someone who is grieving and has experienced trauma. I have felt most safe around those who indicate through their words and actions that they know I am suffering, but don't ask me to describe or perform my suffering. Who can hear "I'm great!" as an effort on my part to be great today, rather than a lie or omission. Who don't feel shut out of my experience, but rather, know that they are pivotal participants in my search for joy in a dark season. The grieving need to laugh, in order to remember that it's possible.

I also believe we are grounded in times of suffering by familiar markers. By the recognition of the seen-before, the safe, the routine. And those who are able to offer this to those suffering in a period of grief or trauma are laying stepping stones on the way to the 'new normal'.

How would you define trauma?  

To me, trauma is the non-negotiable becoming negotiable, without our consent.

My mom died of 25 brain tumours. In a matter of weeks, she went from being an avid hiker and cyclist, to paralyzed and unaware of the identities of her family and friends. My dad and I cared for her at home until her death. In her last week of life, she lost consciousness and her breathing rate rose sharply. While breathing usually changes at the end of life, the enormous tumour burden in my mom's brain meant that she began to breathe as if hyperventilating, for days on end, without alteration or reprieve.

We were later told by the palliative care doctors that hers was a case so rare that it's written about in textbooks, but not encountered in real life. While we administered the palliative medication usually effective in calming end-of-life breathing, her brain resisted, and for a period of time, we were left to stare in helpless horror.

Losing my mom wasn't the trauma, for me. It is a cavernous loss, but not a trauma, because it had been conceivable to me that my mom could die. But the non-negotiable - that her body would cease to harbour any human quality and instead appear robotic, mechanical, possessed even - had suddenly become negotiable. As it was happening, I tried to negotiate some control to push her experience back into the realm of what I could handle. But already, the thing that I didn’t think could happen, had happened. And I had seen it. And that was the trauma.

How has trauma contributed to your suffering?

The images from her last days stayed with me and continue to pop into my mind at unwanted times. Her body scared me at the end, and reconciling this with the loss of the person who was your first, and often greatest, source of comfort, has been confusing.

She also never knew she was dying, which has deeply troubled me. There is no one who can offer comfort in this regard. No one can undo the fact that she is gone, and that she doesn't realize she's gone. And while this happens in the case of a sudden death, she suffered a decline over a matter of months. So while I said goodbye to her slowly, she didn't realize it was a goodbye.

How has suffering contributed to your personal awakening or evolution?

I expected to evolve like a thunderclap. To emerge from the moment of her death 'a person unveiled'. I was surprised to find that I was the same. But in the weeks following my mom's death, I found myself fraught with anxiety over the selfishness of taking space, the need to appropriately thank helpful friends and neighbours, and the self-imposed pressure to be a good daughter / partner / friend. These weren't new issues. These were existing fractures in my personal boundary map that my mom's death cranked wide open.

I found a good therapist who said "never waste a crisis", and we started working on these issues. I am now approaching a point where I can see other people's opinions of me as their business, not mine. Looking back, in terms of the usual pace of a personal evolution, this was a thunderclap.

How has suffering contributed to allowing you to align with your highest creative self, if it has?

I tried to discuss my mom's death with those who were contacting me to offer condolences. But not all grief is trauma, and not all trauma is grief, and I was trying to get comfort for trauma from people whose only plan was to discuss grief. Add to this that most of us aren't equipped to handle a description of the physical aspects of death, and I often left those conversations feeling isolated. In an effort to engage with the trauma while avoiding the loneliness of an empty response, I started to write about her death in my newsletter, pergola. I've found that the act of getting the images out of my body and into the minds of others, who can process it without feeling the need to respond, has brought me a sense of calm.

What words of wisdom would you offer to those who are stuck in suffering that is similar to what you have been through in the past?

I would offer the gentle reminder that, as cliché as it sounds, acceptance is the first step. And no one can do it for you.

I have found myself attempting to accept three realities:

  1. That this type of trauma can happen. That people die this way, and that their children watch them die this way, and that we can be rendered helpless witnesses to this type of death, despite all the modern medicine available to us.
  2. That this trauma happened to me. That I personally experienced this. And that many others will not have to experience this. But that I did. And that nothing that happens from now on in my life will change this fact. That this will always be something I saw.
  3. That many will not wish to hear about it. And that even if they do, they may not understand it or hear it for what it is. And that they are not the adjudicators of my experiences.

I would also offer this: that a power may emerge through trauma. This is not an attempt to paint your trauma as a silver lining - there is no silver lining. Nor is it a claim that you are better off because of this trauma - you are not. It is simply the idea that you can wrench power and a certain sturdiness out of knowing that you carried yourself through these days and weeks and months. And that just as no one can remove this trauma from you, similarly, no one can siphon this sturdiness out of you.