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What PTSD From Losing a Loved One Is Really Like

“What’s it like?”

I’ve been asked that from time to time by well-meaning people — friends who have come to learn about the beast and want to understand. I remain vague. I shrug and say something meaningless, along the lines of, “It’s tough, but I’m used to it.”

Because they may not be aware of it, but they don’t want to know. Not really. I barely want to know, and it’s my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The thing is, no one — or very few — are really prepared for the rawness of it. For the ugliness. For the force of exposed nerves.

And how do you talk about it, anyway? How do you talk about the images you can’t erase? How do you talk about the dull fire of muscles made iron-like by around-the-clock tension? About the too-loud sounds? About the ruins left behind by the crack of fireworks? About the wars fought at nighttime?

And so I shrug and remain vague, because they don’t really want to know and I don’t really want to say. But if you are one of the people who truly want to know, I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you what it’s like. I’ll tell you what PTSD is.

PTSD is being tired as f*ck and still taking over half an hour to decide whether or not to go to bed, because you know, you know, what lies behind closed eyelids.

PTSD is someone telling you to take a deep breath and you realizing with devastating, blood-curdling clarity that you no longer know how.

It’s someone telling you to get some sleep and your immediate response being, “Oh, God. No.”

It’s throwing up at the smell of iron because it smells like blood. His blood. On your hands. Under your palms.

It’s everyday sounds creeping up on you and becoming too loud, too many, too much, until you have to resort to seeking refuge in headphones, and you pray the music will shut the world up, because it’s either that or ripping off your skin and fling it away — sounds and nerves and all.

It’s constant, unrelenting hyperawareness. It’s your brain analyzing detail after detail after detail, scanning the surroundings for a threat that isn’t there.

It’s new flashbacks catching you off guard, brand new pieces of horror your brain had previously removed making an appearance, creating a present out of the past.

It’s the complete failure to draw air into your lungs that sneaks up on you while you’re making dinner.

It’s raw nerves and numb muscles. It’s the sudden inability of fitting into your own body. It’s your fists slamming over and over into that life-saving heavy bag in your living room until your brain kicks back into motion and lets you feel your body again. Until you’re no longer dissociated.


“How are you?”

“Do you ever feel like you want to tear out your brain?”


“I mean, I’m fine.”

Complex PTSD is actually having a lesser of two evils to choose from. It’s praying the nightmares will show you those men on top of you rather than him bleeding out in your arms.

PTSD is accepting the nightmares and the flashbacks and the panic attacks and the hyperacusis and the raw nerves and numb muscles, but never, ever accepting the truth that if only you had known then what you know now, you could have saved him. That it should have been you. That it should have been the bastard with the gun.

PTSD is fear of the dark.

It’s “Please, make it stop,” and “No more,” and “I just want to give up.”

PTSD is sweat and blood and tears and the absence of oxygen.

But here’s what PTSD is not.

PTSD is not the absence of self, though God knows it feels like that sometimes. God knows sometimes I can’t find me.

PTSD is not another word for my name.

I am not my PTSD.

And neither are you. 

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Getty Images photo via Artem_Furman