I think one of the strongest desires of those of us who lost a child is to feel them again, in some way. To perceive their presence again, somehow. To notice the signs they might send, images or symbols that are reminders of their life, or messages they want to deliver. They are no longer in our arms but we so desperately want to feel or remember them again, which is a confirmation of their existence, however short it was. Ever since her passing, I have felt that there was a veil between Gianna and I. There is the obvious veil that her death brings: she is not physically with me anymore. But there is another veil. A veil that took time to understand and one that is still clearing away. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was initially. But after some time and numerous therapy appointments, I now understand. And my life is now a journey to pull away that veil, constantly searching for Gianna’s light amidst the shadows that her traumatic death brought to my life.
For some (if not most) bereaved parents, the death of their child is tied to deep shock, sadness, and trauma. Whether is be the shock of finding out your child has no heartbeat at an ultrasound appointment, having to endure a D & C, delivering a lifeless baby, or watching your child die in your arms, there is virtually no human being that comes out of these experiences unscathed. These experiences leave an indelible mark on the human heart and most of the time leave a gaping scar. Like many other baby loss parents, my daughter’s traumatic birth and death left me mentally and emotionally wrecked. My labor was deathly long and excruciatingly painful. The emergency C-section ended in silence, as Gianna was delivered brain dead and unable to breathe on her own. After four days in the NICU, Dave and I watched her die in our arms. We then drove home with an empty car seat, only to come home to an empty nursery. The following week, I had to dry up my breast milk, plan her funeral, and lay her to rest forever. It was beyond our worst nightmare.
I’ve written about PTSD before but want to go into a bit more detail now in case it helps another bereaved parent who is also struggling with symptoms or wondering if the EMDR therapy would help them. In the years following Gianna’s death, my heart and brain were trying to process what happened. I had both physical and emotional trauma. For me, PTSD initially showed itself in panic attacks, flashbacks, and nightmares. I also had extreme anxiety and acute emotional reactions to any memory or association of Gianna. At the same time, I so desperately wanted to connect with her and “feel” her again in a peaceful way. I wanted to remember her life with joy and gratitude. But I just couldn’t. Her precious life was snatched away in the blink of an eye with no warning. I could not think of her without pain. I could not think of her without feeling a deep, deep sadness, confusion, and despair. The memories I had of her were tied to tremendous suffering. Feeling and remembering the sweetness of her presence seemed like a million miles away, and unattainable, because the road to her was paved with tragedy, trauma, and pain. There was a thick veil between us and the trauma I experienced kept my heart and soul in a straightjacket, making me incapable of moving forward and peacefully connecting with her.
Not knowing exactly what it would entail or produce, I decided to start a particular type therapy called EMDR to alleviate my stronger PTSD symptoms.
Here’s a general description about it:
“EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences. Repeated studies show that by using EMDR therapy people can experience the benefits of psychotherapy that once took years to make a difference. It is widely assumed that severe emotional pain requires a long time to heal. EMDR therapy shows that the mind can in fact heal from psychological trauma much as the body recovers from physical trauma. When you cut your hand, your body works to close the wound. If a foreign object or repeated injury irritates the wound, it festers and causes pain. Once the block is removed, healing resumes. EMDR therapy demonstrates that a similar sequence of events occurs with mental processes. The brain’s information processing system naturally moves toward mental health. If the system is blocked or imbalanced by the impact of a disturbing event, the emotional wound festers and can cause intense suffering. Once the block is removed, healing resumes. Using the detailed protocols and procedures learned in EMDR therapy training sessions, clinicians help clients activate their natural healing processes.” -EMDR Institute
Practically speaking, EMDR involves the client holding the traumatic memories in their mind and talking about them as they simultaneously look at a blinking light or feel vibrations in their hands with a pulsar. As this happens, for reasons believed by a Harvard researcher to be connected with the biological mechanisms involved in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, internal associations arise and the clients begin to process the memory or disturbing feelings more efficiently than they would in “talk therapy.”
I have been doing EMDR off and on for two years now. Although there can be different variations to the EMDR process depending on the need of each person and each therapist, here I am simply sharing my own, limited experience.
EMDR is one of the most difficult, yet thoroughly healing, things I have ever experienced. Here’s what my process looked like. After months of my new therapist getting to know me and me feeling comfortable and safe with her, we began the EMDR process. First, we identified the past experiences that caused me the most flashbacks and panic attacks. This took quite a few sessions because it was difficult for me to even talk generally about these scenes, let alone think about the details. My mind somewhat blocked these scenes out so I could function in daily life and bringing them up again was emotionally draining and painful. But as any illness in the body, the source of the problem must be identified in order for treatment and healing to take place. Secondly, we would identify a scene in my mind that brought me peace and made me feel calm. For me, it was a scene on the beach. We would use this mental image of me on the beach to close the EMDR sessions and calm my mind down before heading back out to the “real world.” If I didn’t want to use this scene, we also talked about number of relaxation techniques that we could do. Thirdly, we would take a look at the calendar and make sure I didn’t have too many stressful or busy events surrounding the EMDR sessions. For example, I don’t do EMDR sessions close to the holidays or days when I am traveling. EMDR sessions are already very emotional and since these types of events cause me anxiety, we didn’t want to add to the load. Once all these things were in place, we would get ready for an official EMDR session. We start off the EMDR session identifying the scene that causes me the most mental distress. Then, my therapist gives me the choice of two apparatuses. I can either look at a blinking light or hold vibrating pulsars in my hands while I talk about the distressing scene. I prefer the vibrating pulsars because I like to close my eyes when I talk in EMDR sessions. While I talk about the scene, she asks me what thought I have associated with that scene (It is usually a negative one, like “I feel abandoned and scared” or something to that effect) and where I feel the emotion in my body. All these questions are meant to help me process the trauma more deeply. She then asks me to think of a preferred positive belief in place of that negative thought. Lastly, we go back to a calming scene or do a relaxation technique (like a mental body scan) to close up the session. I usually talk about my experience of the session and share some reflections about it. The sessions are never easy but for me; the experience is a “hurts so good” kind of thing. But the pain and effort of talking and processing my traumatic memories greatly outweighs the pain and effort of burying them and having them fester inside of me, damaging me even more as time goes on.
Gianna’s memory will always be tied to some pain. I am okay with that because I would rather have her mixed with pain than not have her at all. But the veil that once separated us is now clearing, thanks to EMDR, and I am slowly finding my way back to her without the baggage of severe trauma weighing me down. Since I have actively processed my trauma in EMDR sessions, I can now think of her without having a breakdown or panic attack. I can now see her presence in my life with more ease and calm. I can now see her light shine more brightly as the shadows of my trauma are more manageable.
And that is what I want more than ever, for her light to shine in me and through me.
To shine her light that was so unfairly taken away from her.
And this is my wish for every bereaved parent. That the lights of all our deceased children live on in our hearts and may they shine more brightly every day, in the way we love and continue living our lives with courage and hope.