Covid Perspectives: The Complex Fusion of Covid Bereavement and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Photo by Ümit Bulut on Unsplash

In our Covid Perspectives series, people share experiences and thoughts in their own words. These are the opinions of the individuals themselves, not of Covid Aid. By sharing these, we aim to reflect the need for visibility and to raise the voices of the millions around the UK who continue to be severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Sally, would like to share her story of recovery from Covid-related PTSD, in the hope that it might help others. With her permission we are republishing it here.

‘Trauma therapy is about about learning how to remember an event without reliving it.’

Recently, I have seen people on social media sharing how Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has complicated their process of grieving a loved one who died of Covid. Inspired by those brave enough to open up about their own experiences, I would like to share my story of recovery from Covid-related PTSD, in the hope that it might help others.

Like many Covid bereaved express in support groups, I was terrified of facing my trauma, of falling apart in front of a therapist. But, when my Mam died in 2003, I didn't process the trauma of her dying: as a result, I spent 19 years being unable to grieve, unable to even talk about my Mam. When Dad died of Covid in January ‘21, a week after I was discharged from a Covid ward in the same hospital, I knew I didn't want to do the same disservice to him. 

I also realised that trauma therapy couldn't possibly be worse than another 19 years of avoidance, of flashbacks, triggers, and an inability to grieve. My PTSD was not only related to losing my Dad and seeing his suffering, but I had also witnessed others dying on my own Covid ward. I’m not alone: sadly, many of us have this duel experience. Many more have the combined experience of losing several family members to Covid. Covid PTSD and grief are a cruel and complex fusion. 

My therapist explained it best with this analogy: the brain is a cupboard stuffed full of clothes (memories). The cupboard is so over-stuffed, with all the clothes all tangled up together, that the door keeps bursting open and things fall out. You frantically shove the things back in and slam the door shut to hide them. But that door keeps bursting open at the most inconvenient moment, when you least expect it.

In trauma therapy, we open the cupboard gently and just take out one item of clothing. We shake it out, examine it carefully, then we fold it neatly and put it back on a tidy shelf. The next week, we repeat this process.

Eventually, so long as every item/memory is taken out, examined, folded, and tidied away, the cupboard doors stop bursting open. And then, after more sessions, the cupboard is tidy. If you want to access a memory, you choose to open the door, take out the memory, look at it, then you put it back neatly in its place. The memories are no longer pushing at the door demanding your attention.

The memory is still sad, but it no longer dominates you or causes traumatic flashbacks. It's just part of the many memories neatly stacked in your cupboard, which you can choose to view or not. 

My therapist used to say before each session, "Let's jump in. Feet first!" and I did. I threw everything at therapy, because I was determined to get the most from it. I abandoned all fear & dove in fully to look at each memory, one at a time each week. Yes I cried - but you know what? Twenty mins of crying to process a memory that had haunted me for 18 months was worthwhile!

To show how effective trauma memory work is, let me explain one session. 43 years ago, aged 11, I witnessed a girl from my school being pulled from the sea onto our local beach, having drowned in the current. I watched my next door neighbour, a lifeguard, attempt to resuscitate her: sadly, it was too late. Watching CPR on a drowned child, when only a child myself, was deeply traumatic to witness. For 43 years, I couldn't talk about that event to anyone, even though I thought about it every single day. I couldn't view anything to do with drowning on TV, couldn't watch anyone go underwater, & I would have flashbacks every time I re-certified in CPR.

That 43 year old trauma was processed and resolved in 30 mins of therapy. I can now talk about the entire event without reliving it. To confirm I really had processed it fully, I even watched a YouTube of someone bringing a drowning victim back to life with CPR - I could never have done that before.

What I realised was that, by burying that 25 minutes of my life for decades, I'd been reliving it every single day. But now, by processing it, I can choose whether to remember it and I can do so without becoming anxious. Trauma therapy is essentially about about learning how to remember an event without reliving it. 

I found my therapist on the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy website. You can filter through their list, see photos, locations, specialities, and find a few people you think might suit you. I emailed a five therapists and asked them questions about their experience of treating Covid survivors and bereaved, asked what therapies they used, and their fees. None of them minded me doing this - it's normal to interview a little, because therapy is a big investment. I found somebody I liked but she wasn’t nearby: however, all our sessions were online by zoom, so her location didn't matter.

Zoom also allowed me to do be in my own home: safe, private, and comfortable, with no risk of anyone walking in or overhearing. I've had in-person counselling many times before and honestly, it's no different. You soon forget that you're not in the same room because the process is the same.

I'm happy to share my experience and what happened in each session if anyone wants to know more, so do feel free to ask below. Obviously every therapist is different, but my experience seems fairly typical of modern therapy work, according to my research. You'll know when you're ready – if, as happened to me, the thought of continuing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is more scary than the thought of therapy, you're probably ready to start looking into what might help you. 

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