The Lingering Effects of a Traumatic Loss

May 1, 2014

Sometimes, I find myself caught off guard in my grief.

I expect to feel the weight of sadness on certain dates – anniversaries of my daughters’ birth or deaths or funerals or some other significant date that can cause me to relive the pain of our experience.  I know that I might see something here and there throughout the year that reminds me of them, such as another set of identical twin girls – and occasionally find myself in tears.

Often I know these things are coming.  While they may cause me sadness, they don’t carry anxiety and dread with them.

But there are a few things that do.  These are my triggers.

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My daughter Brigid died rather unexpectedly, which is odd to say because after she was born at 28 weeks, she spent nearly seven weeks in the NICU with the usual ups and downs that life there brings. She needed to be bagged more times than I can count.  She had tests and heart surgery and needed to be anesthetized for all of them.  Every day there was a chance that she might die.  But after a series of good days, the nurses started talking about her going home.  I signed preemptive paperwork about her eventual release and got information about the kind of car seat we would need to get to take our preemie home.

And then one day, she wasn’t doing so well.  She seemed a little “off,” and a few hours after I reluctantly returned home from my daily visit with her that day, I got a phone call from the hospital that I needed to come back.  She had taken a turn for the worse and might not make it through the night.

My husband was on his way home, and as soon as he arrived, we got in the car together and drove the 45 minutes back to the hospital, panicking.  The doctor greeted us on our arrival and told us that Brigid had contracted a bacterial infection that had spread quickly throughout her body, causing her to become septic.  They were giving her antibiotics, but they needed her to remain stable for hours, and her little body was having a hard time doing that.  We were able to be with her and sing to her, pray for her, and have her baptized as we watched the little screen that monitored her heart rate and oxygen levels.  And as they switched her to a different ventilator in hopes of getting her oxygen levels higher, I watched her heart rate start what would be its final descent.  Slowly and consistently, it dropped lower and lower, and once it reached a certain point, all of the NICU staff went into action.

The scene was like something out of an episode of a hospital drama.  They did chest compressions and used a defibrillator on our tiny baby girl as we stood by, watching.  Helpless.  They finally called us over, but only to tell us that there was nothing more that they could do.

She was gone.

Now, almost three years later, I find that while I still have the expected sad days here and there, one of the most difficult triggers of an emotional flashback that I encounter is one that I sometimes have no way of anticipating.  Whenever I see a program or movie in which somebody “codes” and the doctors and nurses come running in trying to revive them, I can feel just like I did in that hospital room watching it happen to my baby.  I have the same feeling of anxiety and panic and helplessness.

My experience was a trauma.  My mind and my body were in shock afterward and while it has gotten better over time, I know that this is a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that will take a long time to go away.  I also know that I tend to avoid situations, movies, and shows where I might see this happening or see someone experience the death of their baby in a hospital setting.  I can read other people’s stories, and usually am able to separate my anxiety somehow when I do, but watching it gives me a completely different reaction.  For this reason, I am not going to watch the movie about stillbirth that is coming out soon.  Not because I don’t support it, but because I know that for me, it will trigger an intense emotional response.

And frankly, I feel like I already have enough to cry about.

I know I am not alone in having had a traumatic experience like that, and as such, I am probably not alone in having residual feelings of anxiety and upset associated with it.  If you find yourself in the same situation, please know that you are not the only one.  I found a counselor to talk to in the months following Brigid’s death.  It is so helpful to express what you are feeling – to write it out or find a counselor so that you can heal from it.  I found this website to be so informative.

We will never get over the loss of our little ones, and their anniversaries will always be sad reminders, but if we are having flashbacks that can be severe and crippling, or cause us to feel like we are not in the present moment and are, instead, reliving our past experiences in a very real way in our minds, there is hope for healing from that.  Learning to identify what things might be triggers for you is an important step in that direction.

Have you experienced emotional triggers following the trauma of losing your child?  How did you find healing from that?



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