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Breaking the trauma taboo

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

How my mum dying at seventeen has made me a happier person

In another incredible blog for Let’s Talk About Loss, Louise has written the following blog with a title we just love: “How my mum dying at seventeen has made me a happier person – no you didn’t read that wrong”. Here, she explains what she means.

Now I know what you’re thinking… *heartless*, but let me explain…

Losing any loved one is rough. Losing a parent whilst you are still a child is double rough. I can’t summarise the time surrounding and just after my mum’s passing, other than to describe it as a blur. I’m 23 now and whilst it may be nearly 6 years later, in a way it feels like a different lifetime of mine, whilst also feeling like yesterday.

Teenage angst

I was a typical teenager, and probably a brat a lot of the time. I have a lot of guilt when I think back to the misery that I could be in my teenage years compared to who I am today… but hey that’s puberty right? I used to get so down and depressed, usually because of some sort of idiot boy I liked at the time; I thought I was so hard done by.

My mum first had breast cancer around years 2005-2006. I was only young maybe eight or nine, and my only real memories are of her wearing a bandana. Fast forward 10 years (yes 10 years into remission – she was so unlucky) and the cancer struck back. My mum found out at the time it was secondary and effectively terminal, yet she chose not to tell anyone this until the very end. She went on to live for 2 more years knowing that she had a terminal illness and kept it from her whole family. I have a lot of mixed feelings about this.

You’ll be fine!

I remember telling her oh of course you’ll be fine. I didn’t have a doubt in my mind that she wouldn’t be. She’d beaten it before, plus there was no way this was going to happen to our family, you only ever read of this kind of thing happening to others. Part of me is not surprised that my mum didn’t tell us it was terminal, she was extremely stubborn and refused to be defeated, she was unbelievably strong willed. Whilst I thought she could be so hard on my sister and I sometimes, deep down I admired this so much about her.

When I try to remember those two years of not knowing, I do carry a lot of guilt. All of our fights and arguments, all of the times she probably thought I was being ungrateful; this guilt will always stay with me. On the flipside part of me is glad I didn’t know. How depressing, waiting for death.

I am grateful for the person I have become

I feel guilty to admit that since my mum passed, I am a much happier person. Part of this is probably because I’ve grown up, (I didn’t really have a choice), but also because I have such a different mindset and outlook on life now. I really just have learnt not to sweat the small stuff, and that has made me a much happier person.

The past six years have been a rollercoaster of emotions for me, but I can’t believe how I have turned out to be honest! Sometimes I have to remind myself what I went through, and am still going through. When I hear of someone my age losing a parent, I feel shattered for them and think wow, what an awful thing they have to go through. But also, I know from my own experience that there can be better days and a positive future.

So yes, if I can take ONE positive (and really just one), from this awful experience, it is that this has shaped my life in a way that would not have happened otherwise, and I am grateful for the person I have become. I am a strong willed, just like my mum, and we really would be the best of friends.

Louise Lawrence

The bubble of loss and what gets you through

Grace-Marie shares her story of losing her dad in March 2019, and how she has coped since.

My dad died in March 2019; I was scuba diving with him on a holiday in South Africa. I want to share my story.

Witnessing his death was one the most horrific things a 21-year-old could witness. My head was ablaze with thoughts, and the hour I spent not knowing whether my dad was alive or dead felt like years.

It is like your house is falling on top of you. I was scuba diving with my father when I lost control of my dive. He was with an instructor; however, unfortunately, had an aneurysm in the water and drowned whilst I was getting on the boat. As soon as we realised they were shouting for help, I instantly knew that it was my dad in trouble, to this day I could not tell you why.

The pain of the formalities

Sitting on a small boat whilst they were giving my dad CPR is something I will never forget. I will also never forget the hour that followed, trying to get hold of my mum, who was also in South Africa on holiday at the time with us. Having to tell her that her husband, my father, was dead over the phone is something no one wants to do. The grief that followed was as horrific. Firstly we had the issue of being in South Africa at the time. We had to make sure all formalities were sorted (for repatriation) before we could fly back. Luckily we had a very good friend who flew out to help us.

Friends supporting me

Once I got back, it was like being in a bubble, and I did not know what was going on. I was carried by visit after visit from friends. I was surprised that my friends who lived hours away were able to commit to visiting me and helping me get through my dads’ funeral. It is something I will never forget.

I also will not forget the love and kindness shown by my local friends as well. I was informed how this is the time when you notice who cares for you, and in the months that followed, it became clear who stood by me. We had the comments from people saying we ”should be over it, he has been dead three months now”. You learn to ignore these comments. I will never get over it, I am learning step by step and starting to except what I have been through.

Making dad proud

I love to talk about my dad with my mum and friends, bringing him up in conversation is like he is still with us. I always am thinking about whether he would be proud of me now. I decided that September 2019 to continue to become an architect by enrolling in a Masters course which I do not regret, a lot of people told me I should have a year out. Still, I knew what I was capable of myself, and I knew that work would be good for me. Not only is it a good distraction, I knew deep down my dad would be incredibly proud of me.

Throughout these one and a half years I have learnt about grief and understanding what it means to grieve. Not many people at my age go through what we have been through. It’s okay to be not okay.

Grace-Marie Spencer

What nobody told me about grief

Louise has shared this fantastic blog with us – you might relate to some of the things she says she wished she had known before experiencing grief for the first time!

How do you explain grief? How can you not see someone for so many years yet still think and dream of them every day?

My questions are endless, I don’t know the answers. I don’t think anyone ever does. My story with grief started nearly six years ago, when I lost my mum to cancer; I was just 17.

So much has changed in the past six years of my life. I have finished school, graduated university, moved out, watched my sister give birth… the list is endless. In a way I feel like I have lived a completely different life since that day on June 20th, 2015; everything is still and will always be strange.

There are so many things that come with grief which you are not prepared for. These are my top three.

Pity and sympathy

This is a big one for me, not so much now but more at the beginning. If you are like me and your grief is deemed as ‘tragic’ (all grief is tragic), but you know what I mean, then you will feel all eyes on you, quite literally. My mum was 48 when she passed. She was so young, and it did attract a lot of attention.

For one, no one even knew my mum was dying, not even her own children. My mum was stubborn and showing signs of weakness was not in her nature, so much so that she hid that her cancer was terminal from all of her family for two years. Of course, we knew the cancer had returned, but we thought she would beat it like she had before, plus you NEVER think this will happen to you and I stand strongly by that.

I found out my mum was definitely going to pass on the last day of my final A Level exam, two days before she did. I was in denial until the very end. My sister and I received an almighty amount of sympathy and condolences, especially around the time of the funeral. Whilst it is really lovely that people care, we found this extremely overwhelming. To be honest that whole time of my life is one massive blur; it had not sunk in. I really can’t remember much of that whole summer. Fast forward six years and everyone else has moved on with their lives and have forgotten about my mum. It is sad but I don’t blame them. It is not their grief to carry.

The awkward conversations

Where do I even start. This one crops up so much, mostly with work and dating. The oh ‘what do your parents do for a living’ line, or ‘I bet your mum loves that you do lots of cooking!’ are just a couple. What makes this awkward is not me, it is the other person. It instantly dulls the conversation and they don’t know what to say. You can feel the awkwardness, usually followed by some pity. What I have learnt the most from these situations is just to be bold and talk about it. If you are not awkward then they will soon loosen up. I will say with confidence ‘Thank you. I am comfortable talking about it, it is a big part of my life!’ and will continue our conversation. I actually love talking about my mum as it keeps her alive. I want people to know how great she was.

I have learnt to not let things like this bother me too much, it is just that dread when you can feel it coming or they’re mid-sentence and you’re just thinking, here we go again! I found this a lot with dating too. You never know when the right time to mention it is. I am not someone who will randomly declare this to anyone – but when is the right time? Fortunately, I have been with my boyfriend for three years now, and whilst I still remember our first awkward conversation, he is really good with it, and respects all of my do’s and don’ts surrounding grief.

The little things – good and bad

Lastly, no one prepares you for the little things – good and bad. No one prepares you for that drive home from a relatively good day at work, and a song comes on the radio that just makes you burst into tears. I have weirdly quite grown to like this one. I think it’s a time thing, sometimes a good cry is all you need! I also like seeing a white feather. One fell into my lap once on my first day at my new job on a train – like how does that happen?!

On the flip side, no one prepares you for the floods and floods of Instagram posts on Mother’s Day that you have to bear – I really hate this one!! Or the random things. The things you would NEVER even think of. My mums email address was hacked after she was inactive for so long, and every now and then I get an email from her account (with a different end of address every time so I can’t block it), and every single time this shatters my soul and ruins my day. Have I not been punished enough?!

My biggest and only piece of advice for grief is just to learn to ride the wave. It is so cliché, but it’s true. Take every day and every emotion as it comes. Every time one of these things happen you get that big stronger, so embrace them! Surviving grief is one of your greatest strengths.

Louise Lawrence

Lockdown lessons

Nimisha wrote a fantastic blog in December about the power of resilience in grief. In this blog, she reflects on 2020, and what grieving during lockdown was like.

2020. Well, it was a slight shitstorm to be frank… I think it’s safe to say that for all of us, last year was a crazy one. Since March, we have been plunged head-first into a world of lockdowns, masks and social distancing. ‘Normal’ life as we knew it seems to have changed for the foreseeable future.

For me personally, life in lockdown has been an incredibly daunting and humbling experience. Amidst the backdrop of global catastrophe, I lost two precious lives within a week of one another. You literally can’t make this up and every time, it serves as a reminder – showing me the full glory of life, its tremendous beauty and sadness.

It really doesn’t help trying to deal with grief in the middle of a pandemic. Grief is messy at the best of times but navigating your way through a tsunami of emotions during a lockdown just makes it more complex. At a time when you can’t go and physically meet friends and family just to pour your heart out; or the freedom to go somewhere just so you can see someplace different other than the four walls of lockdown, it really puts things into perspective.

Let me share what I’ve learnt during lockdown…

Acceptance

I’ve always liked a plan and knowing which direction my life was moving in. It gives me a sense of control in the otherwise chaotic nature of life. This year has come down in a crash, reminding me that life may have other plans in store. I couldn’t have predicted that we would be caught up in the middle of a global pandemic, just how I couldn’t control Dad’s illness or the life that had been growing inside of me. It took me a while to accept these things but as soon as I did, I felt as though a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders, pushing me forward so I can get on with re-making my life.

Gratitude

Being able to say that I’m grateful for this year is quite something. Despite my two personal tragedies, I am grateful for love. Having spent lockdown at home with my husband, we have helped navigate each other through every predicament. We’ve laughed, cried and survived together. I’m grateful for the love and support around me, my incredible mother, sister and father in spirit, magnified against the smaller, more isolating moments of lockdown.

Resilience

Lockdown or no lockdown, I have come to realise that I need to keep showing up for myself. By that, I mean realising I have what it takes inside of me to push myself forward, so that even if we are plunged into yet another unknown, it may faze me but only for a moment. The other moments I’ll spend processing, feeling my feelings and understanding what I need to do next. I know that it’s OK to cry, to grieve and to reminisce but that it’s also OK to laugh, to look ahead and to move on knowing this year hasn’t got the better of me.

And with that in mind, thank you for the lessons 2020.

Nimisha Sharma

Would you like to write a blog for us? We’d love to hear from you! Email blog@letstalkaboutloss.org to get in touch.