What not to say to someone who has experienced trauma and loss

As you read last week readers, I had a rough few days. The “aftershocks” lasted until Thursday, where I felt somewhat normal, not constantly worried of being hi-jacked by a debilitating flashback. Normal is such a funny word after what I experienced. I guess that is why I named my blog Life’s New Normal.

There are lists of what not to say to people who have lost someone. Then there are things that are okay to say. I remember not to long ago, someone said to me, oh, well, your daughter is around you all the time now. I know the person meant well. Really. But no. That does not give me any comfort what-so-ever. She is not all around me, she is dead. The last time I held her was in the funeral home, cleaned up as best as possible from the previous time I had seen her. The little spark of magical joy and energy that she was is not under my feet, asking me for something, asking me to read a book, go to the park, play a game, do a puzzle, fighting to go to bed, annoying the hell out of me at times. No. She is no longer around me in the way that I so desperately want. That aspect of her is gone. Do I sometimes imagine that the butterfly which is the only one around on the top of a mountain that I just hiked, lands on my backpack and stays there, is her spirit. Of course I do. I don’t know what the afterlife entails, no one does. It is a grand mystery. The right thing to say is I am so sorry for your losses (please note the plural in that, yes, I lost both Jesse and Bella, and people sometimes don’t know how to navigate a murder suicide)(understandably). I am sorry for your losses, I can’t even imagine. That is it. And I will reply, thank you, I don’t want you to imagine, yes, it is completely fucked up. I could go on with that list, but you get the point. Think before you speak. I know that may sound harsh, but it is the truth. Unless you are someone I know or are in my inner circle, the ones who pick me up when I am sobbing on the floor or are talking me off the ledge of an anxiety attack or flashback, please do not assume you know how strong I am (I have gotten versed in putting on a strong front), how I am dealing, or how I am doing in any moment. Do not ask me how I am, because if I don’t know you, the answer is fine. Not the true response of the multitude of layers that I feel at any given moment. Do not assume I share in your faith. I was spiritual. I sometimes am. I am mostly agnostic. I am sometimes atheist in some of my darkest moments, and believe me, if I am tired and in one of those dark moments, and you tell me that god had other plans for my child and “needed” her back, I may just tell you to go fuck yourself and your god. 9.9/10 I am not there. Luckily. But think. Are you saying something to make yourself or me feel better?

I was pondering the concept of “normal” on my run the other day, which is what I started to talk about. The thing after trauma and death is that life goes on. You don’t feel like it will at the time, but it does. The sun will continue to rise, the seasons will change, the dog will need to go out, the laundry at some point will need to be done (unless you just go buy new things, but who does that?!). You get the point. The first part of grief or trauma, you are in a fog, and that is a very good thing. Then the fog wears off. The hard work of integrating this horrific thing that has happened into your being and your fabric begins. I don’t think this part ever ends. As you have read and perhaps know yourself, some of those days are easier than others. Some just downright suck. I like to think of myself as a person who sees the silver lining in things. That being said, I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop now and never expect anything to last or work out (thank you Jesse for that)(sarcasm implied). Both of those exist within. I do a lot of cognitive behavior therapy on myself for the latter, which helps immensely. One of the things I have worked on, even during my darkest days, is to find at least one thing I am grateful for or that brings me joy. There have been a lot of studies on the positive effects of practicing gratitude, especially if you have depression. (here is one: https://www.viacharacter.org/www/Portals/0/Relationships/Signature%20strengths%20and%208%20other%20CS%20interventions%20-%20Gander%20Proyer%20Ruch%20Wyss.pdf ) I know it may be hard at times, really hard, I get it. However, on the said run above, I came across a neighbors house. Their front lawn is completely covered in purple crocuses. This is now the third spring I have come across this. Each one has made me happier than the previous. The first, the fog was still ever present, so what I saw was hazy. The second, the reality of my life was hitting me like a ton of bricks, everything was shades of grey. This year, well, that reality is still there, but a moment of joy crept through, a moment of beauty, a pause in that reality, I saw the purple and green of the beginnings of spring. This day, this was the thing I was grateful for. I was grateful for my brain to allow that beauty to sink in and provide that joy and today I am grateful to get to share it with you.

Purple crocuses
The butterfly that landed on my backpack. It was the only one around and stayed there for about five minutes

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Stephanie Willard

Originally published at www.lifesnewnormal.com on February 28, 2017.