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Why 'This is Us' Triggered My PTSD as a NICU Parent

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I should have known. The popular TV show, “This is Us.” is known for its emotional drama. I think the writers believe if they can’t make you cry, then they haven’t done their job.

• What is PTSD?

Recently in the show, one of the “big three” siblings had a preemie. The baby was born 12 weeks early and is in the NICU. As you can imagine the parents are not handling it well, but especially the father, Toby.

In a conversation in the waiting room a fellow NICU dad says, “You want to know something really messed up? You know Max and Louise… so, their baby’s organs are failing and they can’t do anything about it. So their baby is not coming home.”

“That is messed up.”

“No, no the messed up part is sometimes I think about them and it makes me feel better. I think, ‘well at least we’ve got a chance of going home. Better off than Max and Louise.’”


Dark Emotions Happen in Hospital NICUs

NICUs are an upside-down reality because you think you will have a baby where everything is perfectly new, little and lovely. When you are expecting, you imagine all the emotions to be love and joy and a bunch of baby cuddles.

That is often not the case with NICU babies. Things get turned around and real dark real fast. When babies are born too early or very sick, everything is suddenly fragile and unknown. Brand new life is threatened to be replaced by death.

When my son was in the NICU, I remember day-after-day not wanting to make eye contact with the other moms at the scrubbing station. I didn’t want to hear their stories because that meant I would have to share mine. I didn’t want my story to make other people feel better. That’s human nature. But I just felt mine was the absolute worst.

PTSD Triggers

For the most part I have moved on from those dark NICU days, but sometimes a sound, a scent, or in this case, a scene will send me back again. It can feel similar to how Toby explained going through the experience, “I still feel like I’m someone outside my body watching from above.”

It takes time to grapple with the reality of a trauma. Although it is not always the case, it could redefine your life in some way.

Now I look back on those NICU days and wish I would have known things would eventually get brighter. That’s the nature of love. I wouldn’t say my love bloomed in an instant when I met Nathan. I was scared to love him for fear he would leave me. And if he did live, how his life would be marked by disability. I had to fight to accept his new life, however short or long.

But I now know this, even if Nathan never came home, his life would still be marked with love.

Just because something happens that you are not expecting, that you didn’t sign up for, that you don’t feel qualified for, doesn’t mean something beautiful and lovely can’t come from it. As you go through the dark places of the NICU — in the present or as a form of PTSD — you learn that love is never, ever diminished by grief.

Originally published: April 4, 2019
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