Dissociation and the Experience of Loss

Two years ago when I lost my oldest son to suicide, my therapist had to put on a new hat: grief counselor. And I am so grateful that she was willing to. I have kept journals  about my childhood abuse for years, but I had not reflected on the added dimension of grief that exists when you already suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. So I want to attempt a reflection on grief and PTSD, in particular the symptom of dissociation.*

For two years my childhood abuse issues have taken a back seat, for the most part, so grieving has been possible.  But something happened that I was unprepared for: my inner child(ren) processed my son’s death in a different way from my adult self.  And as I began to emerge from the most painful first year of loss, I realized that I had to address the grieving needs of my inner selves, and that their needs were different from my adult needs. I am so glad that I wasn’t aware of this issue during that first year, because I was already overwhelmed and struggling with making a commitment to life and health. Having to take care of my inner child(ren) would have been too much. There is a view in recovery from trauma that things come up when we are ready to deal with them. I don’t know if this is true in general, but in this case it seemed to be.

I had been able to move forward in the grieving process, I had survived the firsts…first birthday, first Mother’s Day and Father’s day, first Thanksgiving and Christmas, and then the worst of all—first anniversary of his death. I had survived. I suppose I was beginning to heal, if healing is the right word. It doesn’t feel like healing, maybe just accepting. Accepting that he is not coming home, that I will never be able to hug him, or ruffle his hair or tell him I love him. That I will never be able to do anything for him ever again, that he will never be able to receive my love.

I had survived the first intense waves of guilt and anger I felt as a mother who had not saved her son. I had survived a loss of faith. I had survived the absence of God, an absence of support, an absence of meaning that reached into my soul and beyond, into the silent universe beneath and around me. I was even beginning to entertain the possibility of God again. And then I felt pulled back to the beginning of my grieving journey. I got in touch with the anger and the guilt of my inner child selves and a whole new process of grieving began.

I discovered that a child self felt responsible for letting Malcolm die, for not taking better care of him. A child self about 9 years old. When I was nine I remember feeling responsible for protecting my sister from my abuser, this inner-child part of me now felt responsible for protecting my physical children too, and she hadn’t protected Malcolm. She had failed him. I had to gently nurture her through her guilt and convince her that she was not responsible, that I was the mother and I was an adult and I couldn’t save him either.

Then an angry child surfaced. My 6 year old was angry because Malcolm was her hero. Malcolm had rescued her on more than one occasion. Once when she found herself behind the wheel of the car and unable to drive, he had come to drive her home. He had stayed home with her and watched movies when she couldn’t work. He had made her feel safe in the house when big Malcolm was away.  How could he abandon her now? How could he choose to leave her forever? Didn’t he love her any more? Who was going to take care of her now?  “I hate Malcolm. He said he was always going to be there for me. He lied.” It was awful feeling angry at Malcolm; it was tempting to be angry at my inner child. But she didn’t understand, she was hurting and she needed me.  I had to convince her that Malcolm didn’t go away because he didn’t love her, he was just hurting too much to go on.

“Has he stopped hurting now?”  “Yes, he is happy now. He is fishing with Pawpaw and telling stories.” “I’m glad he’s not hurting any more. Is he mad at me for being angry?” “No, sweetheart, he understands. He is sorry he made you sad. But he will never stop loving you. Alright?” “OK. But I wish he hadn’t left me.” “Me too!”

Next I discovered that my 4 year old inner-self was really scared. She was scared waking up in the morning and no one was there. She was scared thinking that no one would be able to rescue her if I couldn’t drive.  She didn’t like it when I wasn’t really in charge of the driving. I had to explain to her how I was going to keep her safe. Trouble was, I didn’t know how.  And that is where I am, still.

The mornings are my worst time, in general. I have been diagnosed with Type II diabetes, and in the morning I often feel shaky and light headed. I eat a small, low carb breakfast and take my medicine, but my whole system feels out of whack in the morning. I have often had difficulty sleeping; I am depressed being in the house alone; my body chemistry is unbalanced; and I have a hard time getting out from “inside” my dreams and nightmares from the night before.  If I read the newspaper I am easily triggered by headlines dealing with abuse of children. In the shower I phase out and twenty minutes can go by and I don’t even know if I have washed my hair. I am frequently late for work and have to stay late to make up the time. I am struggling with dissociation when I drive to work; it’s daydreaming but magnified. I use grounding techniques to help me keep focused: ice, loud music, air conditioning on my face, reading signs out loud, singing. Then I find myself struggling back from somewhere and not being sure where I am or where I went and sometimes not being sure how to drive. Often I keep driving when I should pull over, because I am already late.

I feel that a lot of my morning issues are associated with my 4 year old. She feels unsafe and she feels alone. So now my parenting issues are with my inner child. I can’t be a better mother to Malcolm; I can continue to hold him in my heart but I can’t fix him. What I need to work on today is my self-parenting. I need to draw up morning safety plans and rules about driving. I need to take up my dialoguing again. I have ignored my inner selves for too long. I have to engage all of me in the grieving from now on. Being safe will continue to be a challenge, but all my “children” deserve to be safe.

Although this reflection may sound coherent and reasonable, I want to make it clear that it took me all of my second year of grieving to begin to figure these things out. Grief is exhausting, overwhelming and debilitating; grief is traumatic. But if you have been in therapy for another type of trauma, as I have, you will have learnt tools that you can use to help you through your grief. Just don’t expect to be able to access these tools right away. First you have to learn to breathe again, and to sleep again, and to become aware of life going on around you. And when you are ready, you will begin to heal.

* For an introduction to the topic of dissociation and trauma I recommend the website of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation: http://www.isst-d.org/

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One response to “Dissociation and the Experience of Loss

  1. Hi.

    Thanks for this post. I googled ‘complex grief dissociation’ and found this. The first time I got in touch with some big trauma from my childhood was when I had to grieve losing somebody (by the relationship ending, not by death). Tried to grieve my adult grief but couldn’t handle the earlier trauma surfacing. Later I lost another person and ran into similar problems.

    Now after 8 months of therapy and some connection to a few inner selves I can notice when I’m triggered by remembering and feeling the adult stuff. At the moment I don’t yet have the strength and skills to face whatever the early trauma is. That halts the later grief process too.

    I’m writing this in Sep 2011 so I hope you and your inner selves are doing better.

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