Happier times. My 3 boys together, at the airport before we went on holiday a few years ago. So many memories, over 32 years of having Anton in our lives. So many shared moments, so many emotions, so much joy and love. So much sadness since the guillotine sliced our life into Before and After.
I never know when the triggers are going to hit me. I think I'm fairly ok and then wham! Its as though someone just walloped me round the head with a cast iron pan. I can be utterly floored, unable to speak, panicky, crying.
The triggers during the first year or so were so many and so frequent that they have long since blurred into the agglomerated mass of darkness and pain in which I spent so much of that stage of my life. As time has gone on, the general tsunami has quietened but I can still be easily thrown off course by a sudden memory, or stark reminder that Anton is gone forever.
There are the fairly regular blue patches, when I'm low in mood and feeling a little bit hopeless. I have to stop myself listening to the nasty inner voices that cruelly mock my belief that I'm doing better, that I'm adjusting to the loss. The ones that tell me that it's my fault Anton is dead, because I wasn't a good enough mum. So I try to stop them early on, because I know what's coming next. I tell them I'm not listening. I know there is no point in listening because these thoughts will take me to an even darker place. My black hole is always waiting to swallow me, but only if I let it. I distract myself by doing something, anything that will keep my mind and body occupied.
Then there are the trauma triggers. They cause me to feel anxious and fearful and are more difficult to manage. Once I have been triggered, I remain anxious for quite a while, though this has improved over time. Since I lost Anton I have developed something called Inappropriate Sinus Tachycardia, which is basically a fast heart rate without any obvious medical cause. When my heart is racing I feel anxious, whether or not I am actually experiencing anxiety, because its part of the body's fight or flight mechanism which kicks in during periods of anxiety. When I am actively fearful, my body's trauma response is triggered, and I can feel terrified, just like I did in the early months after Anton died. The terror doesn't last so long these days, just a few minutes, but the residual anxiety can be around for a lot longer.
One of my go-to calmers is online Sudoku or Scrabble. It occupies my mind just enough to distract and calm me, but does not demand too much concentration or brain work. I give myself compassion and reassurance; I remind myself of all the positive signs and all the things that tell me its ok. Going for a brisk walk always helps to calm me too, especially if I can be in nature, and mindfully in contact with my surroundings as I walk.
One source of constant anxiety is the idea that something bad will happen to someone else I love. It doesn't take much for me to start feeling panicky at any signs that might point to a loved one (particularly my younger son, Stefan) in any kind of difficulty. I am also quite capable of imagining the signs, because I am hyper-vigilant to them.
It isn't always a specific fear, such as being afraid that he or someone else might take their own life; its more as though my body is back there, in the horror and terror. I go back into a shock response. My heart races, my mouth is dry, I can't concentrate or think rationally. I'm extremely tense, and in severe cases, my leg starts to shake.
I get stuck in the cycle I've drawn here, which
my therapist helped me recognise.
I find it hard to identify any particular thoughts or worries, which means I don't have the opportunity to challenge any cognitions that are irrational or unrealistic. So at times like these I practice deep breathing, and the deliberately calming activities I've described above. A self-compassionate meditation can help. Here's a short one (5 mins) and a longer one (18 mins) from Dr Kristin Neff. Her website is useful if you're not sure what self-compassion even looks like. I particularly like the self-compassion test which I have used for many years in my work.
The first wedding we attended following Anton's death was about18 months afterwards. It was really lovely. Except of course that Anton should have been there.
It being a Greek Cypriot affair, there was a table of photographs of loved ones no longer with us. We brought a picture of Anton and placed it on the white tablecloth.
He didn't belong there, with the elderly people.
For lunch, Alek and I sat at a table with some of our nieces and nephews and their friends. They all took such wonderful care of us that day, I can't thank them enough. We felt so supported with their arms around us both.
Just before we ate, I was in the middle of a conversation with a young woman I hadn't met before. I don't remember what we were talking about, but I suddenly stopped, mid-sentence, unable to continue. Something had been said that I had not explicitly registered, yet it had been flung into my brain like a tiny poisoned dart, immobilising me. I had no idea what I had been planning to say next. My eyes filled with tears. My mouth refused to work. My mind was blank.
What to do? I needed help, so I just asked for it. I looked directly at Thea, sitting next to me and managed to say quietly "Can you help me?". She was amazing. She took my hand, and continuing to look into my eyes, softly repeated "It's OK" over and over again. I don't know how long we sat there like that, whilst chatter and laughter continued all around us, our little bubble remained still, frozen in the midst of busyness and noise. Thanks to Thea's care I eventually recovered myself, and was able to continue with the conversation across the table. Thank you Thea.
I dreamed one night recently that I was with Anton. I was waiting for him in an empty car park. I watched as he drove quickly along the road and turned into the space, parked the car and rushed towards me. For a few moments we hugged, holding one another as tightly as we could. I told him over and over how much I loved him, how much I missed him. He said "I know Mama, I'm so sorry". It was so wonderful to feel him in my arms once again. Then he had to leave. Running back to the car he climbed in and drove away again. I woke up. I cried softly into the night and eventually went back to sleep.
Later that morning at the refugee drop-in where I volunteer, I had finished my teaching and checked my phone during a quiet moment. I was suddenly drawn to my messages and saw his name. I have an ongoing message conversation with Anton, whenever I feel the need I just send him a text telling him how much I love and miss him, or how angry I am with him. As I looked at the green blocks of one way dialogue on the screen I was suddenly hit with a feeling of panic and dread as though I was discovering at that very moment that he was dead. I began to shake. I just gathered my things together and told my colleagues I needed to leave. Then walked to my car and drove home, crying.
If you have lost someone to suicide or traumatic death, of course you will have your own triggers, caused by the familiar and the unfamiliar. At these times it can feel as though the tsunami has returned, and we are once again standing alone in the full force of the gale. When the storm threatens to engulf us, drag us into the depths, as a good friend told me once, we need to hold on tightly to our anchors.
Anchors are those people in our lives who love us and hold us, ground us and comfort us. Finding a hand to hold, whether physically or metaphorically, can give us the strength to hold on and weather the storm. Identifying cycles, recognising the thoughts and behaviours that trigger anxiety or depression, and what keeps the cycle going, can help because once we see what is happening we have the opportunity to do something different, and thus break the cycle. Above all, be kind to yourself. This is NOT YOUR FAULT. More than anything else you need love, comfort and self-compassion at times like these.