When my son Zachary was stillborn in 1988, it was unimaginable that I would survive or that time really would pass and take me away from that pain and turmoil. But, time has moved ahead, and recently, I’ve been looking back and writing about the 28 years since Zachary. I wanted to see if I could find traces of him and of the life-changing experience I shared with him.
The long view has been so enriching. One learning I hadn’t put into words before seems obvious from a distance. I can see how grief for a stillbirth or miscarriage or any other pregnancy loss or infant death comes riddled with trauma. At first, grief and trauma are intertwined, but as time passes, the differences between them become more apparent.
By grief I mean the overwhelming sadness, rage, despair and longing of the loss. And by trauma, I mean the shock, horror and unexpectedness, the rupture in the natural order of things that a baby’s death is. Trauma is the profound threat to life and soul experienced by grieving parents.
Our grief for our lost children usually runs its course and leads us to a new relationship with them. There may be occasional periods of sadness, but they don’t tear us out of the present. Trauma, however, can persist because it is stored in the oldest part of our brains where the only agenda is survival. In an effort to protect us from similar dangers in the future, the old brain preserves details of a traumatic loss experience. Those stored images and feelings can be triggered regardless of the amount of time that has passed.
I’ve found that echoes of the trauma of losing Zachary show up in varying degrees of intensity. For instance, there is a traffic light just before the turn into the hospital where I delivered Zachary. These days, when I pass that spot, the present cracks open to reveal the past, and the feel of that original drive to the hospital 28 years ago engulfs me. For seconds or minutes, it is just me and that deep, warm red beacon on a cold November night.
Usually the trigger’s effect will come and go quickly and the present reasserts itself. But, occasionally, an encounter with a trigger becomes a flashback. I had such an experience two years ago. I’d made a contribution to a local senior center that was offering paving blocks inscribed with donors’ names. I chose to have Zachary’s name etched on the paving stone. I went by one afternoon to see the installed stone and the sight of his name transported me instantaneously back to the week after his death. This wasn’t a memory with buffering distance. Zachary had just died. Terror and panic set my mind and heart racing. My legs felt weak, dread enveloped me. The late afternoon, gray sky seemed to be closing in on me. I wanted to run away. It took a while to breathe through the onslaught of feeling and sensation and regain a foothold in the present. Flashbacks don’t happen only in war zones.
Sometimes trauma is mistaken for grief, and I wonder if repeated traumatic triggerings contribute to that feeling of “never getting over it.”
For myself and the clients I work with, I believe that triggering, especially at flashback strength, creates unnecessary suffering. When traumatic effects occur, our minds and bodies need soothing. Fortunately, today’s psychology offers many ways of managing trauma so that it does not interfere with life or with our ongoing connection to our deceased children.
Emma Mellon, PhD, is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Berwyn, PA. An excerpt from her new book, “Still Life” is available here.