Do I have PTSD?

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

I have a question please. I lost my sixteen year old son in an accident only fifteen months ago. I can hardly walk thru this house of memories, so I stay isolated in one room. I do not want to be bothered. My mom lives here and has taken over for a bit. I have two other children (adopted niece & nephew) ages 14 and 11. I feel terrible I can’t give them quality time; I just can’t right now. I remember very little of the last three months but during the last two weeks I’ve been getting horrible flashbacks of the night my son died I know it’s real, but it feels like a dream. My heart won’t accept it. He was my son and best friend. I’m lost, broken, yet I cannot break down! Why? God and Jesus give me strength and are the only reason I’m still here. Why do I want to be isolated? Could it be PTSD? Sorry for so many questions.

Thank you & God bless!
Andrea
 


 
Dear Andrea–

As I read the text of your question, I can’t help but imagine the many painful dimensions of this loss for you, some of which focus on the suddenness and circumstances of the death, and some of which center on the irreplaceable relationship you had with your son. Just as you suspect, grief can indeed come bundled together with PTSD when we are flooded by intrusive memories and images of the death scene, whether we personally witnessed it or imagine it vividly in our minds or dreams. At the same time, in losing the child who was your “best friend,” you lost a key person who would otherwise have supported you through other life crises and transitions. All of this suggests that your grief is doubly complicated, and calls for attention to both the “event story” of the loss and the “back story” of your relationship with your son.

Regarding the traumatic story of the death, you might find it helpful to consult with a therapist who specializes in the treatment of PTSD, who can help you bravely review and process the troubling images and associated emotions of fear, horror and helplessness that are linked to the tragic accident. This in-therapy work would best be linked with in-home work on your own or with the support of family to help you push back against the urge to self-isolate, and in small steps taken 30 minutes at a time, begin to re-enter the other parts of your home and confront the memories they hold. Although painful, this effort to reclaim your world is essential to your effort to move forward in your life and reengage those you love, including your living children. In contrast, it is well-established that avoidance of reminders of the loss tends to prolong intense grief, preventing us from “relearning the world” in the wake of deeply unwelcome change.

The second dimension of your grief, the unique loss of a special relationship with your son, also calls for attention. If you are reading online resources like AfterTalk, you have already taken the first steps toward acknowledging your grief and reaching toward the sort of changed connection to your son that is still possible now. From the way you describe your unique bond, it is clear that your son continues to live in your heart, and cultivating a meaningful connection to what he means to you is just what AfterTalk is designed to help you do. A further step, then, might be to write a letter to him, describing how you have felt and functioned after his death, and asking for his counsel in what you might now do to make it better. What would he tell you about what still has value in your life? About how you can find the courage to step over the threshold of your grief into a world that also contains hope and love? About what you still have to offer to your living children? How might he use your shared spirituality to offer you consolation or support? By imagining and writing a response from him to you, you can draw on his wisdom, love and compassion in finding steps forward in the difficult terrain of your bereavement.

–Dr. Neimeyer

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