Post Traumatic Growth
NOTE: The below covers sensitive issues and explicit content.
People talk about post traumatic stress. I titled this story Post Traumatic Growth (1) because this has been a journey for me. One that has me learning and growing to this day. Post Traumatic Stress focuses on the triggering event that happened. Post Traumatic Growth focuses on the ways that same event can change a person in positive ways. My post traumatic growth started after I lost my mother to suicide earlier this year.
It played out much like a horror story. Every hour getting worse until we heard the finality of it. I felt like I was watching some actor in a movie. It wasn’t real.
I was lucky (for lack of a better term) to have cousins who had gone through an unfortunately similar situation when they lost their own mother. They shared their own experience, and offered support and advice. They gave my sister and I something to lean on. Now I’m going to walk you through my journey, in hopes of helping others find growth from trauma.
This was my first experience with intense loss. The kind of loss that cuts so deeply that you get through each day breath by breath. You hang onto and repeat to yourself others’ consoling words, like: “You can be happy and sad at the same time. And that’s okay.” You have real downs. Downs where you can’t bear to swallow your food but you know you need something in you to keep you going.
Life starts to tip back to normalcy, but the rollercoaster of grief continues to take you on ups and downs. At some point, hopefully, you find peace. But you’ve changed.
How do I begin to tell the story of my mother’s suicide? I knew something was wrong immediately during a conversation with my sister that, in and of itself, should not have been alarming. She told me that she couldn’t reach our mom and wondered if I had spoken to her recently. I found myself with a dark worry: Had there been warning signs (2)?
I was frantic, crying off and on, gulping CBD in an attempt to calm myself. First our mother was unreachable, and then she was missing. Her body was found in the middle of the night. She used a gun she had purchased less than a week earlier.
I cried uncontrollably upon receiving the call. Crying is an understatement. I was gasping for air. I was shaking (3) all night. It didn’t feel real.
By 6 AM, I was on a flight headed out of San Francisco for Detroit. I don’t know how I made it there. A best friend told me just to get home, that I could do it. I burst into tears at regular intervals during the flight.
From the minute I arrived home, our family and close friends were there in every way possible. Food was provided, arrangements were made. My sister and I just sat around and cried. Every hug and cry allowed us to process a bit more. Each time hurt. I felt raw and broken.
As the days passed, the crying lessened but the pain remained. Though I never saw it with my own eyes, I kept visualizing her last moments, the trauma playing out in my head.
As a suicide survivor, I learned there are many stages of grief. One of these is anger. I feel so thankful that I have not felt the anger. However, I had to try hard not to replay every scenario and wonder, “what if?” She was gone and there was nothing we could do to change that. Slowly, I was able to stop pointing fingers and going down the “what if” rabbit hole. My brain still wasn’t fully functional, but it was recovering.
Something interesting happened a few weeks into the grieving. We started sharing positive memories more often. We started talking about her in the present and attributing positive actions towards her. When we made a fruit plate in the morning or forced vegetables to accompany a meal we would laugh lovingly as it was like her presence was there cutting the fruit and pushing the nutrition. We brought her to life again. Thinking about her made me smile. Of course there was—is—sadness, but I enjoy thinking about her often.
I stayed home for close to a month. I had purchased a one-way ticket to Michigan and had no idea what I was going to do next.
Within days of returning to San Francisco I packed up my car and headed to Colorado. I never loved San Francisco, and had been thinking about moving to Denver for years but had held off, thinking staying put was the right move for my career. Now I was finally doing it: trying something I had wanted to do for years.
Seven months later, I am here in Denver, launching a women’s health and empowerment business, in many ways inspired by mom. I feel grateful to have had the time with her that I did. Now I hope to build community and give back to others the way she always did. She would light up with passion describing her work on campaign initiatives for various community leaders, or the expressions of kids who attended music initiatives at the University of Michigan, where she helped arrange buses to transport them from inner city schools.
As I reflect upon this journey, which I am only partly through, there are still days when I am haunted by the loss, the suddenness of it, the what ifs, and my feelings of guilt and remorse. I have days when I still can’t catch my breath, or have a hard time getting out of bed.
But more and more, I am able to catch my breath. To push forward, to be deliberate in my actions, and to try to be mindful of all I have. I have more happy days than sad days. When I have a down, because grief is a rollercoaster, I know it is temporary.
I love you, mom. I’m sorry I didn’t say it more but I’m not going to judge myself for thinking that now. It’s a passing thought and I’m sending you love. Every day.
For more information around suicide awareness and prevention please visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
REFERENCES & NOTES
(1) To hear more on post traumatic growth I recommend Kara Loewentheil’s Unf*ck your Brain podcast episode on trauma.
(2) You compare notes after the finality of the event. What had we missed? What could we have done? It’s tough as you don’t see the whole picture from a singular event. Please note that I am NOT a licensed medical professional but sharing my perspective here. You should be receptive to signs such as deep sadness, increased sadness or crying, signs of isolation, and statements around feeling disconnected or losing fulfillment in life. If you notice any of these you should seek professional care for yourself or explore what you can do to help the individual expressing these characteristics.
(3) I later learned that my body shaking violently all night long was actually a natural healing mechanism. You can work with a healthcare provider to explore this further or read about it here. The act essentially allows you to process trauma.
Natalie holds a BSE of Industrial Engineering from the University of Michigan. She is passionate about health and female empowerment in addition to rescue pups and enjoying life.
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