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How I Coped With the Trauma of My Friend's Sudden Death

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After a rare night with relatively few nightmares, the sun creeps through my window and I wake up to signify the start of another day. And with that comes me asking the question in my mind, “Is today going to be the day?” Since the sudden death of a longtime friend of mine and the strong, physical sensation I had after seeing the news on Facebook and Instagram without any warning, that’s been a question I’ve asked myself almost every day. It feels like the floodgates have opened and there’s not much to stop it. And so begins another day of looking over my shoulder for something I know deep down inside is not likely to happen, yet it seems like it’s coming at at any second.

• What is PTSD?

As I make the coffee and eat breakfast, I think of what I’m going to do if today is, indeed, the day. If it happens at X time when I’m in X place, what do I do? I’m not the best with grounding skills, so how am I going to ground my emotions if I feel a strong physical sensation coming? Will I find myself trying to picture what happened and potentially envisioning a horrific scene somewhere? How will I carry on with the rest of my day if it happens early on in the day? How will I be able to fall asleep at night if it happens later?

I try and snap out of it and tell myself that the likelihood of this happening again is very low. Since then, I’ve made lots of progress, most notably being able to willingly express my feelings about it and recognize when I’m experiencing flashbacks, triggers and other episodes. But I worry that with one look at Facebook, progress could be all for naught. I’ve been on the road of healing and I’m always determined to stay on it.

Right before I got the news about my friend’s death, I felt like everything was falling into place for me. With just one exam left to go, I could taste being home for a few weeks and getting a much needed break from school. Before going to bed one night, I logged into Facebook one last time, just like I usually did. I opened it on my phone and after only a second or two of loading, it came. I can’t remember the exact wording of the first post I saw, but it couldn’t have been more clear at the time.

When I talk about the strong physical sensation I had, I have no way to describe it other than just flat-out shock. It’s not like this was the first time I had dealt with death in my family; during my junior year of high school, my maternal grandfather and my paternal grandmother died just eight months apart. On both of those occasions, it was hard not to see them coming. But here, I had nothing to suggest that my friend had any health problems. On that night, I needed answers. After staggering to the lounge across the hall to get a glass of water, I went on every single local news station’s website to see if there were any car accidents near the area where he lived. I didn’t find anything though, so I shut my eyes and my denial-struck body got a few hours of rest. There was no sleep to be had by me that night; it was just me lying horizontally in my bed, not knowing I was even experiencing trauma.

They say that the people to whom you disclose trauma to matter so much. For me, that was nobody until about a week and a half later. I was in such denial, both from shock and lack of concrete evidence, that I wound up spending my last four days on campus before break like I normally would. It became more real as time went on; the next night, I saw some other former teammates and coaches of mine weigh in and that’s when I knew there was no escaping the reality. However, I stayed quiet about it until I was kind of forced to talk about it. About a week and a half later, I sat down in my living room at home to watch TV and my parents sprung the news on me as if I hadn’t known, which caught me by surprise. When I told them that I knew, their reaction was basically, “Then why didn’t you say anything?” It was as if it was my fault all of this had happened.

While my parents were not as sensitive as they could’ve been, I found safer spaces to talk about it when I got back to school, especially in the presence of my resident assistants. When I found the courage to talk to them about it, they listened and processed everything I told them, and reassured me that my reactions were totally natural. In their eyes, it was OK how I tried to act naturally and wasn’t super comfortable talking about it with my parents at first. After hearing them say that to me, I began to believe it more and more, which had a very positive impact on my healing. Everybody heals from trauma differently, whether that’s through therapy, medications, just talking about it or other ways, and while I’m not endorsing any one of those over the other, taking that first step towards healing is something to be very proud of.

Of course, some days are just like I described. On other days, I wake up feeling like nothing can stop me. It’s easy to think a traumatic experience could happen again and unfortunately, that’s something that always seems to be engrained. I’ve always hated when people say to “get over it” when talking about trauma. Yes, one can come to terms with what happened, but when you have nightmares and flashbacks, “getting over it” impossible. I may never be the same as I was before this happened and I’ve more or less accepted that. But I have a wonderful support network that I can turn to for anything and I’ve also began to learn some grounding skills, which have come in really handy.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes about healing from Tori Amos:

“Healing takes courage, and we all have courage, even if we have to dig a little to find it.”

Originally published: December 16, 2018
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