By now, most people are familiar with what PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is. For the longest time, I only heard it used to reference the trauma that a soldier faces in battle…the unimaginable loss and horrors of war, and all of the things that can’t be unseen.
But as I worked with more and more grievers I found their stories were filled with trauma from the loss of someone they loved. Some were the obvious traumas of sudden and devastating loss, but others followed long-term illness after witnessing the slow, sad, and painful decline of a loved one.
So while PTSD is rightfully designated to those who have been to war, so too should those who have lost a loved one be recognized as survivors of trauma. After all, what could be more traumatic than losing the people we love more than anything in the world?
It’s worth discussing in terms of validating and normalizing this response to loss: what are some of the ways people can be traumatized by the loss of a loved one, and what can be done to help?
Trauma following any type of sudden loss. These are the cases where our loved one is here one minute, and not the next. When there has been no notice, no warning, no time to prepare or say goodbye, to right wrongs, or do any of the things we would hope to do if we knew it was going to be the last time.
Trauma as the result of “finding” the person who died. This can go for anyone – long term illness or sudden loss – but I find those who were the ones to make a discovery that a person is gone will be effected more. This could be especially true in the case of a suicide or overdose.
Trauma after the loss of a loved one to a long term illness. So this one may be the bigger surprise. Most people would expect there to be more issues coping in the aftermath of a loss similar to the ones described in the first two examples, but those who have cared for a loved one with a long term illness don’t always find the same understanding. The fact is, a caregiver spends weeks, months, and even years tied to every breath their loved one is taking. There is an unbelievable amount of stress in having to make so many important decisions and nothing ever feels “right”. Not to mention the roller coaster ride of good days and bad days…until finally there is nothing left but bad days. This, along with all the sights and sounds that go with it (what their loved one looked like, or what their breathing sounded like in the last days and hours) can leave a very long-lasting and painful impression on those who are grieving.
So what does trauma really look like and how does it manifest for those who are grieving? Some examples include:
- Difficulty sleeping (especially because of visions that keep replaying like a broken record: the moment the phone call came in, the last hours before, the images that can’t be unseen)
- Troubles with eating, perhaps too much or too little
- Feeling numb, dazed, dream-like
- Inability to focus, remember, or communicate clearly
- Feelings of panic, being paralyzed, or unable to breathe
Of this list, the first four will be very familiar to most, as in almost every case these are common symptoms of grief following a significant loss. But for those feeling traumatized, these will be to the extreme, especially in the early days/weeks/months. If you find you have been struggling with any of these four, click on the statement or statements that apply to you to find articles where we go in depth to address how to cope with each of these specific concerns.
As for feeling panicked, paralyzed, unable to breathe…this may be the most severe and troubling symptom of trauma in grief, and possibly one of the most difficult to cope with.
For the past few months, I have been doing individual Grief Coaching with a woman (we’ll call her Sheila) who lost her spouse suddenly. It happened early in the morning as they were getting ready for work. And it was one of those cases where he was seemingly fine one minute, and gone the next.
Since his passing, Sheila has struggled with feelings of panic, and not being able to breathe, and as we talked she said she had started to notice a pattern. While these feelings of panic didn’t necessarily happen every day, when they did, they always happened at the same time: in the morning, when she was home, almost to the same moment in the day when he died.
So why is it that some people have this reaction to trauma and loss?
It could be any number of reasons, of course, and it’s important to remember who we were before our loss (or losses) happened. Is there a history of anxiety and panic attacks? Is there something in our past that was unresolved that has been unearthed and compounded by a significant loss?
For Sheila, there were several factors. The first came with the recognition that she was feeling “abandoned” by her spouse following his death. This may sound strange to those who haven’t been through it, but for a griever, this feeling of being “left behind” is not unusual at all. But what if it goes deeper? Sheila discussed her father leaving when she was a young child, and the feelings of abandonment that accompanied that trauma. She was inadvertently and subconsciously linking the two events in her mind.
Her husband dying = her father leaving.
Through this she came to discover that she hadn’t fully dealt with all the traumas of her childhood. Sheila felt that she was lucky enough to meet and fall in love with her husband. And being with him had, for the most part, made it seem like nothing else mattered. That part of her past was in the past.
Until it wasn’t.
You see, a significant loss has a way of removing all the cushions, security, and protective barriers from the things that may have been hurting us. We tend to be more vulnerable in grief than we’ve ever been, because often we are mourning the loss of the person who made everything else seem okay.
Now of course this is just one example, but there may be a lot of grievers who are feeling the extreme emotions in grief who can trace their feelings of panic back to circumstances of life even before their loss.
For everyone else? Those whose first trauma was the loss itself?
Ultimately the tools for coping can be relatively the same:
- Make self care your #1 top priority. So yes, I talk about self care a lot, and I mention the importance of finding ways to rest and relax- but it goes beyond even that. It means not only adding tools like yoga, meditation, journaling, or breathing exercises to your daily routine. It also means taking away or removing any part of your life that is causing significant stress. I know – we don’t always have choices on this one. But think of the things you do. Are you overcommitted? Doing too much at work or at home? Is there a place (or a relationship) that is zapping your energy that you can possibly pull back from in some way? It’s about getting back to the basics. Asking for help. Not taking on too much, and making time for your grief and your needs.
- Change your routine. For those who find there are triggers to the panic they may be feeling – certain times of day or specific places they may go – change your routine. Sleep in a different room. Eat in a different part of the house. Drive a different way to work. Shower at night instead of the morning. Anything that could help rewire the dread that comes on just before the feeling of panic. This one requires some trial and error, but it has potential to truly make a difference.
- Centering. We always hear that we’re supposed to spend more time in the present. This takes that idea to the next level. If you are feeling nervous, uncertain, short of breath – stop. Stop everything. And force your thoughts in the exact moment of where you are. Start by smelling the air. Listening to the sounds of what’s around you (it could be as subtle as the hum of the refrigerator). Open your eyes and see where exactly you stand or sit. Feel the temperature of the room, the clothing against your skin, your feet on the floor, or the cushion that you sit on. Find adjectives. Label everything. Use every single sense you have to anchor yourself to the exact moment you’re in, and tell yourself: it’s not happening again. This horrible thing did happen, and there is so much to cope with, but in this moment, right now – it’s not happening again. It can’t happen again. Find a mantra for yourself. Something calming, or just keep cataloging your senses until you can feel centered and grounded and confident that what your brain is trying to do is link this past trauma to this current moment. And you’re not going to let it.
- Disconnect. For those who may have struggled with traumas prior to their loss, break the tie. Our brain loves to make connections. As uncomfortable as it can make us in the moment, some part of our brain tends to feel more comfortable when it can say, “oh, we’ve been here before”. Except you haven’t. In Sheila’s case, her husband dying is not at all the same thing as her father leaving the family. And an important tool to her healing can be to break that link and disconnect from the idea that one has anything to do with the other.
- Get more help. The advice listed above can help, but for some it may not be enough – and that’s okay. If you find you have been experiencing panic attacks or extreme symptoms of grief and are unable to manage them with techniques you’ve tried or anything listed above – there is help. There are several different types of therapy for grief and trauma: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Hypnotherapy, and something called EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.
There are so many times where it feels our traumas not only define us, they control us.
Just remember…neither has to be true.
Need more help? As I always say, in grief – the more help the better.
You can join us at www.griefincommon.com to connect with those who have experienced a loss similar to your own as sometimes it may seem that they are the only ones who can truly understand. We now feature LIVE CHAT ROOMS where you connect with fellow grievers in real time, in the exact moments you need it. You can find them here: LIVE CHAT ROOMS.
Finally, if you’d like one-on-one support Grief Coaching – click the link here to learn more: GRIEF COACHING.
*Please note, this writing is not intended to diagnose or treat those suffering with panic attacks or trauma. To learn more about PTSD and diagnosis and treatment options available, you can click here: PTSD Mayo Clinic.