Breaking the trauma taboo

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In this fantastic blog, Emma discusses significant trauma that leads to loss, and the impact it has on the grief experience. Please note, this blog contains the personal testimony of someone who experienced the death of a family member to domestic violence.

It’s difficult to interpret our thoughts and feelings when we are grieving, but it is harder to understand how to react when the death of a loved is caused through a criminal act which leaves us to have little understanding how to process our emotions. But how do we find the ability to cope with trauma in a bereavement when someone dies unexpectedly?

Trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences. In June 2010 my sister was killed through domestic violence, she had an altercation with her boyfriend which led to her falling from a multi-storey car park; it was nearly 24 hours that had passed before police broke the news of her death to us. The range of emotions at that point were incomprehensible, there were no words to describe the way I felt that evening.

A lack of understanding of what was happening

A death through murder or manslaughter often results in police investigations, a post mortem, trials and court attendance. It’s a frightening and frustrating time, with what seems like a never ending cycle of procedures. Dealing with the anguish of hearing what had happened to my sister often left me feeling mentally unstable as I didnt know how to address the trauma. I realised quite quickly that my ability to understand what was happening was non-existent and I was unable to cope being left with my own thoughts for too long. In time the trauma had such an impact on my focus in life to the point I could only show anger, I showed resentment towards everything and everyone and felt I had no control over my feelings.

I have realised from my sister’s death that we as survivors of trauma must cope with the loss, at least temporarily, for our sense of safety. The natural reaction to this loss is grief and you need to go through a grieving process in order to be able to live your own life again. I struggled in the early days, the intrusive memories I would regularly have was a struggle and is a continuation of trauma to this day. For me this is commonly expressed through nightmares, guilt or thoughts around what had happened on that day and my inability to stop what happened.

“I still don’t cry”

I also had a sense of avoidance and numbing – I didn’t cry when I heard the news of my sister’s death and I still don’t cry. I ended up putting myself in a bubble of safety in order to suppress my emotions and whilst that is not the healthiest option when coping with trauma, it was my only safe way of coping at the beginning and is still a way of maintaining safety now. The most difficult aspect relating to the trauma around losing my sister was physical or emotional symptoms of hyperarousal: for about a year post trauma I displayed a sense of irritability, anger, trouble sleeping and decreased concentration. I still fear danger daily because I don’t want to lose another person I care about in the way I lost my sibling.

I have however, taken time to understand my own triggers when dealing with grief through a traumatic bereavement. Over the years I have learnt to process the trauma around my sister’s death emotionally and while this has been a difficult journey, my ability to cope has become easier. Have the symptoms of trauma gone away? Truthfully, no. There are times where I can’t show emotion well and I refuse to look weak when I’m at my most vulnerable, however I have learned to maintain my happiness and health on this journey of self- preservation.

Some tips from Emma on how to cope

The three valuable lessons I have learnt within this process and dealing with my own sense of loss through trauma is to:

Try to seek the cause of your feelings. Triggers based on past trauma show us where the past invades the present which has an impact on our ability to cope. But they also allow us to look directly into the hidden world of who we are and understand why we are feeling the way we are and that it’s a normal way of feeling.

Practice acceptance of your feelings. As upsetting and challenging as triggers can be, it can help to remember that they are one of the body’s ways of pointing us toward our own healing.

Validate what you are experiencing. What you have experienced is real and hurtful, there is no denying those feelings. Having the context of trauma lets you know that how you feel is not your fault. It’s important to remind yourself of this and there is nothing “wrong” with you, what you’re going through is actually a normal response to abnormal experiences.

Trauma changes us, but should not feel like a punishment.

Emma Robb