Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
How do you return to the scene of your only child’s death? How do you keep from crossing that city off the list of cities you will ever travel to again? I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), not just grief. PTSD falls under the big black umbrella known as anxiety.
I feared for my daughter’s life. I fought understanding that she was dying. I stayed in denial for a period of time during her illness. Death was central to my thoughts for months. Because I couldn’t save my daughter, I also thought about my own death, even longed for my own death. I wanted to go with her. For a while, I had a death wish or a death instinct.
My daughter’s death was untimely and unfair. She was only 29-years-old. Her death was painful because I watched her suffer for a year prior to her diagnosis and for ten months after her diagnosis. Her death was not private. She chose to speak out on behalf of the terminally ill. My grief was not private. I chose to honor my daughter by both speaking and writing about her death. Her wish was for every terminally ill patient to have a choice in their end of life options.
Traumatic death, untimely death, is difficult to resolve in our minds. We replay the death in our mind. We try to think of what we could’ve done differently to change the outcome. This is an animal instinct that might have served us well at one time in the development of mankind. But this replaying of the scenario in our minds, is for the most part no longer helpful to us as parents.
Anyone can suffer PTSD. This includes war veterans, survivors of natural disaster, survivors of criminal activity, physical or sexual assault, abuse, accidents. PTSD is not unusual after the unexpected loss of a loved one. I’m sharing because I know that I’m not alone. YOU are not alone.
My symptoms were re-experiencing scenes from the end of my daughter’s life over and over again and bad dreams where I awakened with my heart racing. I also felt anxious when I heard certain music that Britt and I had liked, or when I went to a familiar place that Britt and I had loved going to together. I experienced hyperarousal in a hospital setting and a distrust of doctors and medications.
I enjoyed much of the state of California with my daughter. She and I also traveled together to other states: Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington, Arizona and Texas. Were these places now going to be painful reminders of her absence? Britt and I had been to England, France and Greece together. Was I now going to have to avoid these countries because of the wave of strong grief that would hit me when I saw familiar places?
Growing up, you may have heard advice like, “just try not to think about it” or “don’t dwell on it.” But if you avoid thoughts and feelings of the trauma all of the time, your symptoms may get worse. Using avoidance as your main way to cope can make it harder to move on with your life.
I decided that I wanted to overcome my natural desire for avoidance. I decided that I would wear the smile that Brittany gave me and go to places she and I had been together and look for beauty. Brittany was the apple of my eye. Just saying her name makes me smile. She was the light of my life. She truly is responsible for a ridiculously high percentage of my smiles in this life.
Recently, I bought a bright yellow sweatshirt announcing my intention for all the world to see and I returned to the city that Brittany died in. I explored the beauty of Portland in spring. I soaked up the evidence of life and rebirth all around me. I was still not ready to go see the little yellow house. I don’t know when I will be. But, I smiled the smile that Brittany gave me and I loved my weekend in Portland.
You are not alone. I am not alone. One step at a time.