Heartbreak

It Took Me Years To Recognize The Aftershock Of Trauma

Photo: Tero Vesalainen / Shutterstock
woman grieving

It took me years to feel the aftershock from having great trauma in my life. I never asked for it, I don’t think anyone does. No one is immune to bad things happening, yet, everyone’s path to healing is different.

I used to hear people say they became stronger, better people after a life-altering event. I found that nearly impossible to believe until life challenged me to make a choice.

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This is the moment it happened to me

One day, my beautiful 16-year-old son, Garrett, woke up with a high fever. I raced him to the doctor’s office that morning, and he was diagnosed with the flu.

I took him home, tucked him into bed, and fixed him chicken soup for dinner. I thought he was doing better. He finished the bowl of soup, and I sat up with him until he fell asleep watching Saturday Night Live.

The next morning I found him lifeless in his bed. The report after, showed it was an aggressive form of bacterial meningitis. It took him from life to death in less than 24 hours.

On that day, my castle walls fell to the ground

It’s impossible to prepare for this kind of loss, especially as a parent. The very thought of it was unimaginable. And yet, on that tragic day, I was faced with entering a new chapter of my life, one that I never saw coming.

Think about one of your own dramatic life events. Did it cause one chapter of your life to end and another to begin?

We all have those stories, and it’s those stories that define us.

There was no hurrying through bereavement. The myth that “time heals all wounds” is just that… a myth, because the reality would always be the same. My son was not in this realm anymore.

I remember the feeling of impatience. I wanted to know exactly when I would feel better. Then, I didn’t know that restoring my life would be a process of self-discovery.

What’s your story? What happened to you? Are you struggling to regain your quality of life?

Sometimes, it’s the hardest thing to imagine taking the next step, but you must

Past traumas are good at masquerading as something else in your life. You think they’re long over, but in reality, they may linger around in the form of thoughts, preconceived ideas, and behaviors that can rob you of a happy, fulfilled life.

I struggled with feeling safe. Nights terrified me. I’d often tiptoe into my children’s bedrooms to watch them breathe.

I developed obsessive behaviors like needing to organize rooms and cupboards. Sometimes I’d do it in the middle of the night.

You see, the nighttime was my perceived enemy because Garrett slipped away while I slept.

My life as I knew it was at risk. I felt out of control. My brain harbored questions like, “What if I lost another child?” Things like organizing and creative activities seemed the one thing I could control.

I used art as my refuge. I wrote volumes in my journal. I sketched drawings of a magical garden I wanted to plant in memory of my son (and I did!). I painted ceramics at a local studio, often taking my children with me so they could create their own masterpieces. Everyone we know got ceramic treasures for Christmas.

Those were the creative gifts that came alive during grieving, and they were soothing.

But it was the obsessive behaviors that bothered me the most.

I knew that sadness and depression were normal and natural responses to grieving, but I didn’t know they could manifest as obsessive behaviors.

For months, I felt ashamed to tell anyone about it, until one day I revealed it to my best friend. She was no stranger to therapy, having weathered the tragic suicide of her father. She recommended her therapist, and I didn’t hesitate.

I knew I was in trouble and was relieved to have brought my fears to light. I learned so much about grief recovery, and it opened a whole new chapter of my life.

What is grief really?

Years later, while studying to become a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist® at the Grief Recovery Institute in Los Angeles, I learned there are over 40 kinds of life events that can trigger a grief response.

We know the obvious ones… death of a loved one, a significant health challenge like cancer, or a divorce.

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Hidden traumas can masquerade as something else

What about those hidden traumas that are disguised as stages of life or things that happened when you were young. You might have normalized it, thinking, “Didn’t everyone grow up in a less than perfect home?”

Then, there are those “happy” events that leave us confused, things like graduations, marriages, the dream job; all are events that begin an exciting new chapter, but your life suddenly becomes different. It takes adjustment, and sometimes there’s a longing for “the way things were.”

Empty nest is another transition. I’m not sure any parent is ever fully prepared for the day your child drives off to college. It was that first dinner alone that hit me hard.

Retirement offers a different challenge. You’ve worked your whole life, and suddenly your identity changes. You no longer have a label, like a teacher, a bank manager, or a real estate agent. When the titles are stripped away, designing your new life takes effort.

It’s hard for any of us to leave an old chapter of our lives behind unless we’re on the threshold of something new; and even then, it’s a transition that takes effort and adjustments.

It’s those unexpected events that catch you by surprise

At one moment in time, I became a mother who’d lost a child… my child… my first-born son, and my life would never be the same. This was an adjustment I could never have imagined.

In order to heal, we have to address all parts of us: emotionally, physically, and spiritually. 

I was fractured from trauma, and becoming whole again was my goal. I had to address all of me… body, mind, and spirit.

Healing is a process where we need to find small moments in every day for self-care. Whether it’s time spent journaling, talking with a friend, doing an art project, or practicing yoga and meditation, anything you claim as “yours” is a step toward becoming whole.

I wrote pages and pages within my journal, and I wondered… how did others survive this? What did they do?

I began researching books and articles written by bereaved parents. Some, I read more than once to hold on to the belief that I could make it through the darkness. Those stories became my sacred path to healing, and they were the tether to my survival.

It was the evidence I needed to feel that I, too, would be able to restore my life and feel joy once again.

Yet, it goes deeper than that. I discovered it’s absolutely possible to emotionally borrow someone else’s triumphant story to feel the intensity and sensation of what it’s like to heal.

Think about that! It happens every time you read an inspirational story and feel joy. It happens when you watch a movie with a beautiful love story. Your stomach quivers with butterflies, and you feel the love.

The experience gave me something I didn’t expect. It inspired me to write my own book of survival. (“How to Survive the Worst that can Happen”)

My book is for parents struggling to cope with the loss of their child. I used my story as a backdrop, letting them know they are not alone, offering hope for recovering a quality of life that will bring them happiness and joy once again.

As a writer, it was the hardest and most important thing I’ve ever written. It was such a gift to feel my son’s presence as I sat down to write every day. I was doing this for him … and for myself, and for the connection I felt. Love doesn’t stop when you lose someone. Surprisingly, it grows, just as though they’re on this planet with you!

In that knowledge, I had the power to bring my son with me into the next act of my life by giving him the legacy he deserved. His life had meaning well beyond his 16 years, 3 months, and 10 days. The written word lasts forever, and this book will continue making a difference.

In that, I feel great peace and joy.

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We all have life challenges, it’s part of being human

We all have our share of life challenges. No one is immune. But we all have something inside of us that won’t die… resilience. It’s the ability to not just “bounce back,” but I like to say, we “bounce forward.”

Once we go through these difficult chapters, we’re never quite the same… and it’s true… in some ways, we are better people because of it. No matter how great the challenge, we now have greater awareness than ever before.

Each of our stories is unique, and yet we are all the same… we have all experienced life challenges.

Believe in your ability to heal and emerge triumphantly. And… don’t keep it to yourself! Share it!

Your story matters

You have the ability to inspire others. Whether you touch one life or many, know that sharing your story will make a profound difference in someone’s life, and that’s the best feeling in the world.

“Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending — to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. And I will choose how the story ends.” — Brené Brown

Sandy Peckinpah writes to spark creativity, encourage resilience, and offer hope as people navigate life’s ever-changing challenges. She’s the author of 5 books, including the award-winning, “How to Survive the Worst that Can Happen.” Her blogs are featured in Huffington Post, Thrive Global, and Medium. Visit her website. 

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This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.