“Be ashamed to
die until you
have won some
victory for humanity.”
A Healer Helps Katrina Victims “Find Normal”
Lessons for easing into another traumatic transition:
by Carolyn McLuskie
Dr. Larry Shaw works on the front lines of trauma
therapy— with survivors of the devastating hurricanes that
ravaged the New Orleans area. His work with Katrina victims has
given him some surprising insights into how to handle a different
type of trauma that aging adults face: the difficult transition
to full-time retirement.
The Los Angeles–based clinical psychologist spoke with the
Journal of Longevity recently after returning from his latest
trip—this time to help the archdiocese of New Orleans and
120 parish priests deal with the traumatized victims of last year’s
But the first responders themselves— the priests, the volunteers,
the social workers—are still traumatized, Dr. Shaw said.
“Imagine a priest standing on the front steps of the church,
greeting parishioners as they go into mass and as they leave,
saying goodbye to them,” he says. “The steps are gone.
The whole church is gone. So they’re in shock, because their
flock is gone. They’re devastated, and this is months later.
“The whole city is like that—wherever you go to eat,
wherever you go to shop, everybody is bumping into people and
saying, ‘Oh, you made it. You survived.’”
Mother Nature’s Wrath
Dr. Shaw considers the magnitude of the destruction to be on a
level with the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. He visited
Hiroshima 10 years ago and saw pictures of the nuclear aftermath.
Now he is struck by the eerie physical resemblance— the
annihilation of an entire city’s culture. “That’s
what hit New Orleans,” he says. “It was Hiroshima.”
Some images of New Orleans remain seared in Dr. Shaw’s memory.
Crisscrossing the city’s flattened remains, he saw a lone
house standing in a mileswide sea of debris. Inside, an old woman
searched the encrusted filth for something— anything—to
“She lived in this house for 40 years,” the woman’s
daughter told Dr. Shaw “Everything that she was connected
to is gone. She spent the last four days looking for her gumbo
A Whole Culture Uprooted
“The gumbo pot is the shrine, the altar of Louisiana culture,”
Dr. Shaw says, noting that New Orleans was unique among American
cities, in that 70% of its residents had roots there for more
than three generations. “Now, a whole culture has been uprooted
and scattered across the United States, from Alaska to Hawaii
In particular, Dr. Shaw is haunted by two wrenching phrases he
repeatedly hears in his 20-minute therapy sessions with survivors.
“Everybody says, ‘I’m trying to find normal.’
Those are the words they use: ‘Trying to find normal.’”
“I used to be” is another phrase he hears over and
over. “I used to be a mother with four children and now
I have two.…I used to head an organization, but now the
building’s gone, the employees [are] scattered across the
U.S., all I have is my laptop, and I’m still being charged
rent on an empty lot.”
Dr. Shaw has been flying to New Orleans regularly as part of a
team of therapists from TOP [Training Outreach Program] trained
in Trauma First Aide®.
It’s his area of expertise: he works with survivors of intense
traumas, including people who were in the World Trade Center on
9-11, adults physically or sexually abused as children, and even
Hollywood elites facing the spiritual question, “Now what?”
Larry Shaw: Trauma Therapy in Action
note: We asked Dr. Shaw to give us an example of how he uses
Somatic Experiencing in the field to help Katrina survivors
discharge the pain of traumatic events. Here, in his own words,
is how he helped one anguished woman find peace.
I will never forget the woman who worked
at Food for Families in Baton Rouge, a group that fed the
poor. She grabbed me and asked, “Would you like a cup
of coffee?” As we walked across the parking lot, she
said, “Katrina meant nothing to me. Nothing, because
one month before that, my beautiful son was murdered.”
He was the first of his family ever to go
to a university, a gifted student who had written prize-winning
essays and won every accolade and award—including one
from President Clinton while he was still in junior high.
Accepted at a fine East Coast university, he was shot and
killed there in his first week, during a robbery in his dorm.
She had gathered all the pictures, all the awards,
and all the papers he had ever written into a box to ship
to the college, which was building him a memorial. She planned
to photocopy everything first.
hit, she put the box in the highest spot in the closet. She
had been through hurricanes—she knew what they were
like. But Katrina did what no other hurricane had ever done,
and the box was washed out to sea. All that was left was a
picture on her desk at work. “I have nothing left of
him,” she said. “That’s what I’ve
This woman was stuck. There was
no resolution. There was nothing she could do.
never got the coffee. We sat down in that parking lot and
started working. I had her feel that place of sorrow, and
then I had her find a place in her body that was the opposite
of that— that was strong or powerful. She searched and
she searched. And then she looked straight at me and we locked
eyes for about five minutes. “Right here,”
she said, pointing to the upper part of her chest. “I’ve
got Jesus right here.”
I said: “Okay.
You hold Jesus!” I’m a Buddhist, but I became
almost like a Christian preacher. “You hold on to Jesus
right there, and you hold on to missing that box and the pain
She went back and forth between
the pain and the strong place, and all of a sudden she looked
in my eyes and she said, “I can do this. I know what
I’m going to do. I can feel the box in my hand. I’m
going to get a new box. I’m going to remember everything
that was in that first box. And I’m going to get every
friend he ever had to write about him and put it in the new
A shift had taken place inside her
nervous system. You could see it. And this happened 13 minutes
into our session.
She called me a month ago. “I
made a new box,” she said. “The memorial at his
college is next week. And it’s all okay. Thank you,
thank you. I’ll never forget you
At first, Dr. Shaw was overwhelmed by the enormity of the suffering
in New Orleans and by how paltry his own efforts seemed. He conducted
individual therapy with 25 people and talked to 120 others.
A practicing Buddhist, he remembered reading in a religious text
that a change in the destiny of a single individual can change
the course of the nation.
“Everybody had that same experience of grief and loss and
trauma,” he points out. “If individuals can be given
hope, then they can give that back to the community.”
Dr. Shaw uses two powerful new forms of psychotherapy: Somatic
Experiencing and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
(EMDR) to help people “discharge” emotional trauma
and reframe and integrate the experience. He is an expert in how
stress affects the brain and how the brain’s resilience
and plasticity can be used to help people reorient and restructure
their lives. In addition to his private practice, he teaches neurobiology
and developmental psychology to doctoral students of clinical
psychology at Ryokan College in Los Angeles.
Dr. Shaw focuses on the limbic system, the part of the brain that
is most affected by emotional trauma. “The limbic system
ensures survival and is the ‘fight-or-flight’ part
of the brain,” he says. “It also tells us who to nurture
and who to be nurtured by, and who to have intercourse with. That
is about survival. If we pick the wrong person to be nurtured
by, we will emotionally die.”
An Emotional Smoke Detector
Dr. Shaw likens the limbic system to a kind of smoke detector
that scans the environment and decides what’s safe and what’s
not safe. “This mind-body connection is crucial,”
he says. “But the problem is that our limbic system has
evolved to be on hyper-alert most of the time. Our society constantly
bombards us with stressful information. If it’s not al Qaeda,
it’s hurricane season, or drive-by shootings, or sewage
The limbic system keeps filing away the information, but “we
need to find a way to download it,” Dr. Shaw says. “When
our e-mail inbox gets full, we delete the contents, but we don’t
do that with our own brains. We just keep filing and filing and
filing, and then if there is severely traumatic material, that
stuff gets stuck in the nervous system.”
Some of the newer therapies utilize brain scans to study what
happens in the brain when a person is shown stressful material
or when the brain is dealing with stressful material from their
past history, Dr. Shaw says. “We’re seeing what parts
of the brain light up and we’re watching certain therapeutic
techniques that can actually decrease that [response].”
Both somatic experiencing and EMDR are neurologically based, and
they work with the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems
to have it discharge the energy that’s stored there, Dr.
It’s Critical to Discharge the Trauma
“The trauma can be lessened and also the physical symptoms
of the trauma can be lessened,” he explains. It’s
critical to do so, he says, because “the number-one thing
that ages people, more than diet or disease, is stress—mainly
“If you look at the Katrina survivors, there is a tremendous
sense of loss in the whole area,” Dr. Shaw says. Those affected
must find a way to release the trauma and seek healing, or they
may face a greater risk later on of what Dr. Shaw refers to as
limbic death. “Not from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder],
but later—because they’re trying to find normal. They’re
going to die limbic deaths—heart attacks, cancer, depression,
alcohol, suicide, accidents, and even violent deaths.”
Dr. Shaw sees an obvious parallel to people who go into retirement.
“They’ve been locked into a routine and a certain
way of being, and it had a sense of normalcy and rhythm to it.
Then a heavy shock comes—they retire. Even if their system
of living was stressful, it was still a system. Now the system
goes into retirement, loses everything familiar, even the crabby
boss and the traffic going to work, and not being appreciated.
But it was part of a pattern. [Complaining] about it was a part
of what made their lives normal. Now they’re trying to find
normal, just like the Katrina survivors, and the theme that has
them stuck is: ‘I used to be.’
“There shouldn’t be retirement,” Dr. Shaw says
firmly. He sees a need to help people make the transition, people
who are leaving their 40-plus years of employment and asking,
“Who am I now?”
Five Keys to Healthy Retirement
Dr. Shaw believes that there are five keys to successfully making
the transition and avoiding a Stepfordlike existence in the next
phase of life.
1. Find and live your passion.
Commit to something that you care about, something that you love
to do, that you are passionate about—whether it’s
your local church or being with your grandchildren.
That is crucial. For Dr. Shaw, it’s flying down to New Orleans
to do volunteer work with Katrina victims.
2. Activate your altruism.
You need to have a commitment to something outside of yourself,
to the greater good of society. In Buddhism, this altruism is
called the world of bodhisatva. There’s a quote Dr.
Shaw loves from the educator Horace Mann: “Be ashamed to
die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
3. Have a spiritual something.
You need a spiritual link that makes you feel inspired and connected,
whether it’s a religious community or feeling a spiritual
connection with nature. If you’re an atheist or an agnostic,
your connection could be with the ocean. Or, for example, at age
61, Dr. Shaw has taken up yoga. “It’s not a religion,
but it has a spiritual side to it.”
4. Nurture your relationships.
Dr. Shaw likes to recommend a wonderful book by Dr. Dean Ornish
called Love and Survival, which is about the essential human need
for intimacy. Call it the cuddle principle—you need loving
relationships in your life. Look at the animal
kingdom: lions on the savanna always lie down as a group. They
have a strong physical connection, and they literally have each
other’s backs. You need to be connected in order to live
a full and rich life.
5. Physical health.
Find an exercise— or, as Candace Pert, the biochemist who
discovered endorphins, calls it, “body play”—that
you genuinely enjoy doing and do it regularly for the rest of
your life. That “God, I love this!” feeling, in and
of itself, has a stress-relieving effect.
Making Sense of Change
The lessons of Hurricane Katrina will be far-reaching, and the
importance of discharging emotional trauma cannot be overstated.
Our lives depend on it. “We’ve only been a written
society for 3,000 years,” Dr. Shaw says. “Before that
it was stories, cave paintings, tales passed from one generation
to the next. Stories are very important for the limbic system
because they help us make sense of what happened to us—what
psychologist Daniel Siegel called the coherent narrative.
If we can make sense of what happened to us, no matter how serious
the trauma— whether it’s a terrorist attack, hurricane,
earthquake, or sexual abuse—then there is the potential
While retirement does mark a period of transition and can feel
traumatic at first, it
does not mean that life has to become a series of “I used
to be…” statements. By
embracing a positive attitude, supporting a healthy body and mind,
and finding a way to release emotional stress, you can successfully
enjoy the freedom of life after retirement.
Reprinted from The Journal of Longevity
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