PTSD: How it Impacts Relationships and What You Need to Manage Them

As a bereaved mom of a daughter who died by suicide in 2005, I have long been a proponent of change in how we view difficult loss and grief in our culture and the importance of understanding trauma and PTSD associated with certain types of loss. Not only for grievers, but everybody supporting them through their grief process.

It’s not only child loss that can traumatize people, but keeping it to bereaved parents for a moment, I am certain there isn’t one mom or dad out there who hasn’t been traumatized by the loss of their child, no matter the cause of death. They may even have PTSD and not know it. Little to no information is available on the topic. Despite the lack of information on the risk of PTSD for bereaved parents, it is encouraging to see that a quick internet search pops up a number of articles and studies done on PTSD in parents coping with a critically ill child, which is progress. (As an aside, there is even research for traffic accident victims who have PTSD). I remain astounded at the apparent lack of information and interest to take up this cause for the grieving.

Without any information or long-term support for bereaved parents or others traumatically affected by loss, imagine for a moment losing your child, spouse or other close loved one to suicide or other sudden death, which occurs daily. It could be you next. Your friend, neighbour or colleague. After the initial support dies away, for those who have been traumatized, there is very little information to explain the craziness of the grief journey.

Unless you’ve been personally touched by sudden death, people don’t want to think too much about losing their loved ones. Yet, as parents and other family members of the suicides that are increasing in numbers around the world and other horrific sudden deaths, I can assure you there are countless of us struggling with the traumatic aftermath of many deaths with very little or no support at all. In fact, in order to find and maintain support, you have to be pretty savvy in understanding trauma and grief that can last for years. Maybe for the rest of a person’s life (certainly true for a bereaved parent). You can’t fix what you don’t understand.

Somehow, I had an innate understanding of this need to dig deep to understand grief from the very beginning of my own in 2005. Since then, I’ve taken a keen interest in trying to understand what was happening to my mind and body throughout all of the pain and struggle. Particularly, the craziness that wasn’t just affecting me, but my entire family.

When I was finally diagnosed with PTSD in 2014, my relief was enormous. In 2016, I was directed to the work of Dr. Bessel van der Kolk and from there, I found further excellent resources on trauma through The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine . Though none of the information I have discovered so far addresses trauma and PTSD in grief, the information has been incredibly helpful to my growing understanding of PTSD in general and how it affects the brain and body. I share what I learn from the professionals and in my own personal experience to bring awareness and hopefully some relief to those who are struggling with difficult loss, just as our family did for years.

PTSD symptoms are often accompanied by anxiety, depression and even substance abuse. Because PTSD symptoms greatly impact the sufferer’s (I call us sufferers because it is a very painful and debilitating disorder to live with) ability to connect with others and gauge a true sense of self, all of their relationships are negatively impacted. In my experience, this is for two major reasons:

  1. PTSD changes the brain. As such, the responses of the person living with PTSD cannot be controlled. They can only be managed once you know what needs to be managed. This likely will change over time, depending on the situation and access to successful treatment (therapy, the implementation of self-soothing measures etc.). Managing PTSD requires professional guidance and the right tools.
  2. Those trying to support someone living with PTSD must understand PTSD in order for the relationship to be supportive. Like any relationship impacted by illness, disease or physical trauma, PTSD is no different. It changes who you were as an individual, couple and family.

When I discovered that PTSD was largely responsible for almost all of the problems my family was plagued with for years, it shifted the burden of responsibility I felt to make things better on my own. It’s no surprise my child’s death threw me into stress disorder. In fact, many of us are predisposed to PTSD from childhood (you can learn more about that here). Understanding PTSD the way I now do has helped me realize I no longer have to explain or validate certain behaviours or feelings. My immediate family is starting to “get” it.

You can learn more about the impact of PTSD on relationships here and what you need to manage them. Essentially, and in line with the latest research that supports a more compassionate, empathetic approach to treating patients with PTSD for better results, the best support anyone living with PTSD can have is emotional.

If you have been impacted by trauma and don’t know whether you may have PTSD, this link to the DSM checklist can be used as a guide. See your doctor if you think you have suffered trauma or may have PTSD.  

I’ll be posting more information on PTSD on my Trauma in Grief video series on my Living Meditations channel on YouTube. If you would like to be notified of the next post or video, sign up here or subscribe on YouTube.

Credits: Feature Photo by Vlad Kutepov on Unsplash; Flowers by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash; Water Photo by Linus Nylund on Unsplash