Last night I asked people whether they, or someone they knew, had experienced a traumatic loss. The response was overwhelming. I have yet to reply to all who took the time and trusted me to share their stories both privately and publicly. I want to thank you and acknowledge both your experience and the loved one you lost.
The stories sent to me were heartbreaking. They told of the deaths of mothers and fathers, partners, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, babies and children. They spoke of death by suicide, murder, drug overdoses, sudden infant death syndrome, illness and tragic accidents. Those who responded, spoke of feeling alone and angry, shameful and guilty. These stories were so shocking that individually told they sound like a rare occurence. And yet, here were so many stories, written down in black and white and sitting in my inbox. Dozens of them. Stories so tragic, but also sadly a shared experience for many. Far more common than we might at first believe. These stories were also tales of survival, resilience and fortitude.
The devastation following a traumatic loss is hard to comprehend until you’ve been through it. I remember vividly the early weeks feeling incredibly surreal, almost like an out of body experience. It is incomprehensible that life around you continues and you feel somehow one step removed, watching yourself get through the days from some far off place. I realised, looking at my inbox, that all these people had walked the same path as I had.
Several times doing mundane things like the food shopping, I was gripped by the normality of what was going on around me, while the voice in my head was silently screaming ‘these people don’t know my husband just died’. The mundane nature of daily life felt dreamlike, pushed up against the backdrop of the horror of my husband’s traumatic death. Occasionally, I told the person in the shop who was serving me. Sometimes they had asked a question that invited my repsonse. Other times, I just felt complelled to share it, as if it would help me feel more grounded in reality in that moment.
I believe that this early phase of disbelief following traumatic death is protective. It is the brains way of giving you only what you can cope with at that time. However, my own experience was that this was also interpersed with periods of acute distress. Time and again, I’ve heard people say they didn’t want to burden family with this level of emotion and that they could not access the support they required because they were told it was ‘too early’.
As a psychologist, I know that support for bereavement is not usually offered until 6 months following the death. This is largely due to the view that grief is normal and that it only becomes ‘clinically’ significant if it doesn’t ‘resolve’ within that time.
Firstly, I agree that grief is a normal and expected process. However, it doesn’t magically end when the 6 months is up. Nor is it linear, like people used to believe. Secondly, trauma and grief are not the same thing and many of the stories I have been privileged to have been told, feature the idea that people feel out on a limb in the earlier days before support is made available. They are left sitting with traumatic memories, images and thoughts with nowhere for them to be validated. We all know the benefit of early intervention for many of life’s difficulties. Yet, in traumatic loss it seems not to apply.
I watched something recently that said, ‘make your mess your message’. My message and my mission feels clearer all the time. I want to work to normalise the emotions that accompany traumatic loss. I’d like to be able to offer something to people who are in that place, whatever form that may take.
For all of you who know this pain. Life can be hard sometimes. What I’ve found though, is that it always has a way of coming good again. Even though it might not feel like it now, you will carry the loss with you and move on through.