(Fourth in a series of topical blogs based on chapter by chapter excerpts from Opiate Nation. Translation into most languages is available to the right.)
Distress, disbelief, shock. These are the normal, and actually healthy, responses to sudden traumatic experiences: natural disasters, an accident, assault or death of someone close. Even the risk of a situation that could harm us or someone else can bring fear and the sense of helplessness, which in turn brings on stress. According to the intensity of the event, even these powerful feelings can resolve themselves over time. But what if they don’t? And what if the event is actual, not threatened, and cataclysmic?
Such was the event that has changed our lives forever – more than any other event that has ever happened to me and my husband. When we opened our front door that Saturday morning in August 2014 and heard the news from the young officer standing on our doorstep that our 25-yr-old son was dead, time stopped moving forward as if a repeat button had been pressed down and was stuck in place – over and over and over. As I wrote the next day:
This traumatic news keeps replaying in my mind: our son is dead.
It blocks out everything else – it never progresses.
Weeks later, I wrote:
I am experiencing dissociative amnesia—the temporary loss of recall memory due to a traumatic event. It can occur abruptly and last for minutes or years—certain details are still so hard to recall…I also had moments of just staring blankly…they were a type of brief seizure that cause a lapse in awareness or blank staring. Now they are referred to as Absence Seizures. Yes, my unconscious self wanted to be—needed to be—absent from this seismic news.
Of course, what we were both experiencing was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: PTSD, and I would suspect that every parent experiences this when they lose a child, regardless of their child’s age or the cause of death. It is the “fight-or-flight” response triggered by released hormones that makes us ready to either run away to safety or stay and combat the threat. And, as I said, it is healthy in the sense that it is how we are equipped as humans to handle menacing situations.
But how does this response help us when there is no place to run and no place to hide – and no physical enemy to battle? Experts warn that if the physical responses that occur to this type of stress persist – heart rate and blood pressure and respiration increase, muscles tense, blood sugar levels rise, sleeplessness sets in – both our physical and mental health will suffer.
The stress response did initially help us survive our son’s sudden death during those first awful days and weeks especially since we needed to be able to “perform” under the pressure. There are some things you must do, as the parents, whether you want to do them or not. But after the pressures of calls with family and friends, autopsy, memorial decisions, handling decisions about his body, and the memorial itself, we needed relief. This is where processing grief becomes paramount and, for us, our spiritual foundation was never more important than in responding to this traumatic news.