Flashbacks are NORMAL

Flashback: a past incident recurring vividly in the mind (Merriam-Webster)

Though we often associate flashbacks with PTSD,  it’s not uncommon to experience flashbacks after the loss of a loved one. I like to think of my flashbacks as snap shots of an event or situation that my mind had not been able to process at the time. Sometimes they resurface because they are triggered. Other times I believe they re-surface when there is enough space for me to think and feel my way through them.  It is a type of catch-up exercise. When I was caring for someone who is very ill or deteriorating, I was often moving from one crisis to another, stressed beyond what I thought was possible and physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. Processing a painful or difficult situation requires headspace and often also heartspace- something that was simply just not available to me at that time.

I’ve been told that I have some form of PTSD (too much death over a short period of time).  There is some truth to this, BUT it is equally true that I have met others who continue to experience flashbacks long after the death of their loved ones.  All of our life stories are, of course, different and so consequently, I’m thinking flashbacks are just something that happen after loss. 

Recently, while I was skillfully swinging my way on crutches to X-Ray to have my broken ankle’s progress documented, an elderly gentleman lying on a gurney thanked a kind orderly for driving him so carefully to X-Ray and back. Without any warning I was once more walking down the corridor at Hamilton General, following behind the attendant wheeling my late husband to MRI and half listening as the two of them chatted away. In that moment I had smiled to myself when my husband with grace and kindness thanked the young man for his excellent driving and asked him about his day. This time, the fear I’d felt during those days came hurtling at me full force. I was shocked by its intensity and as it let go of me waves of realization slammed into me once more with the message that he was gone. Without thinking I had inhaled sharply.  Now I intentionally exhaled and coached myself into taking a couple of deep breaths, reminded my body to feel my feet where they were planted on the ground (not so easy as one was in an air cast and I was leaning into my crutches, but still possible) and then I quietly repeated to myself “That was then, this is now. This is just a memory.” When these moments come, I also tell myself “That was a hard thing to live through. It was a lot.” Fortunately, I am now also at a place where I can then move to gratitude, and I am indeed grateful that my life today is in so many ways so much easier. 

The Unnecessary Trauma

I believe part of the trauma that accompanies these types of experiences is caused by the misbelief that flashbacks happen to unstable people, those living in the past or those irrevocably damaged. A flashback does not mean we are failing to heal.  Flashbacks are sometimes part of the healing process. We are better off accepting them as one of those things that just happen so that we can learn how to better help ourselves to heal.  The truth that makes the most difference for me when these moments happen is that others too continue to have flashbacks years after their loved ones have died. They can happen at any time and I’ve yet to hear of them having an expiry date.  

Seeking out professional help if we are struggling with flashbacks is always a good idea. Consider choosing someone who has also personally experienced loss.  We are long way from culturally understanding the nuances that accompany healing from loss and the uninitiated are not always the best resources out there.  

The Lesson

I used to be too polite to ask. I too was once terrified others would think I was losing it. But because I did ask and enough people told me ‘yes they do”, I‘ve come to realize the problem isn’t that we have these moments.  The problem is that flashbacks are another one of those things we’ve foolishly chosen not to talk about. When we don’t talk about them, those who have flashbacks then sometimes feel shame when there is no reason for shame. When we’re too polite to ask others if they too have them, we perpetuate the silence that leaves many feeling isolated and needlessly suffering.   

The Gift

It is one of the gifts of loss to understand that asking is more important than remaining ignorant.  And because I asked, I now know and so do you. Small victories

Till next time, stay well,

Looking for previous Widow Wednesdays? Start here with Widow Wednesdays #1
Buy Heike’s book “Grief is…” here
To learn more about Heike (Author: “Grief is… thoughts on loss, struggle and new beginnings click here

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