It has taken me five years to allow myself to think of my mother. Since her death in 2012 I have tried to shut out all thoughts of her during my waking hours. I dreamt about her most nights, though. In my dreams, she had somehow defied death. I knew she should be dead and didn’t understand how she was now alive. All I knew was that she was. Until the moment I awoke each morning.
In recent weeks I have found myself thinking of conversations I had with my mum as a child. This small step is a huge advance for me.
My ability to grieve was hampered by a traumatic experience ten days after mum died. My focus was on that. It was a professional colleague who first helped me to acknowledge that the circumstances of my mother’s death were also traumatic. Of course they were. When I told a neighbour how she had died, he turned his face away from me, and grimaced.
The traumatic circumstances of her death were the second reason why my grief was delayed. Whenever I started to think of her, all I could focus on was the harrowing manner of her death. That was unbearably painful, so I avoided thinking of her at all.
Now that I am finally starting to grieve, I am unprepared for its intensity. I never imagined that it would be so painful. Why would it not be, though, when the love I felt for her was so deep?
I still struggle to believe that I will never see her again. The thought of never seeing her again or talking to her again - it feels unbearably painful. It’s just not possible to absorb this. I am still in the very early stages of grief, clearly.
Professionals have sometimes told me that grief “ebbs and flows”. It doesn’t feel like that to me. Personally I think the level of gnawing pain remains constant. It is simply that my attention is drawn away from it sometimes, because I am focusing on work or friends or other aspects of life.
It was only this year that a psychiatrist diagnosed me as experiencing traumatic grief. I’m glad he used the phrase “traumatic” rather than “complicated grief”, which never seems to quite recognise the severe impact of some types of deaths. Significantly, he felt that it had been a contributory factor to my suicide risk during times of crisis, even if I could not recognise that at the time. He believed that the profound guilt that I felt (for what I perceived that I did and didn’t do during her final days) was a factor in my suicide attempts.
Feelings of guilt are of course a frequent part of bereavement. However, my participation in a recent NHS conference gave me an illuminating insight into what may also be fuelling my very strong sense of guilt.
The talk was about psychiatrists and how to support them following the death by suicide of a patient. The speaker explained that psychiatrists sometimes take on a disproportionate amount of responsibility for the death of their patient, re-writing in their own mind the circumstances of the death and the events leading up to it. The evidence doesn’t back up their re-writing of events. They will say to their employer “I’m personally responsible”.
As soon as I heard this, it resonated with me. I feel I may have “re-written” her final days. In my own mind, I carry a greater responsibility than the doctors who were involved in my mother’s care.
I think this overwhelming feeling of personal responsibility can apply to carers and parents and families who, like me, feel a disproportionate amount of responsibility for our loved one’s death: “My role was to protect and care for her. I failed her. I didn’t do enough to prevent this happening.”
The talk at the NHS conference has been one of the most helpful parts of my understanding of some aspects of the traumatic grief which I am experiencing.
For many of us, getting professional help to specifically address traumatic grief can be extremely difficult. We often end up finding our own way through it, without specialist help.
I tried to get help from a bereavement charity shortly after my mum’s death. They told me I needed help for PTSD instead – something they couldn’t provide.
We know that traumatic grief can have a very considerable impact upon suicide risk. We need access to professionals who specialise in providing appropriate therapy for it. And we shouldn’t have to wait years to access it.
For information about the Suicide Crisis Centre: www.suicidecrisis.co.uk
Cruse is a national bereavement charity in the UK. Phone: 0808 808 1677
SOBS (Survivors of Bereavement By Suicide). Phone: 0300 111 5065