BLOG | 25 AUG 2022
I spend much of my time at work speaking with clients about their experiences of trauma. These are often deeply personal conversations which involve vulnerability and working through what can be confronting core beliefs and experiences. It is this willingness to share their inner worlds in a safe space that I admire and make a point of acknowledging regularly as it will become a key ingredient to their recovery.
I often use eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy as part of my repertoire and am asked about how it works. There is some discomfort involved in putting one’s personal perspective out there as a professional but I figured it was probably time I did some sharing of my own and gave an example of how EMDR can be used.
I’m no stranger to grief and trauma. What I’m about to discuss to some, would not equate to trauma. However, trauma isn’t something we can compare. It isn’t helpful to do so. No trauma is more, or less distressing than another person’s – It’s personal, it’s relative to that person only. According to the psychologists’ ‘bible’, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5 ), one of the definitions of trauma exposure includes ‘witnessing the accidental death of a close family member’ so based on that, I recently experienced trauma. It certainly felt that way.
Some of my clients and colleagues had the pleasure of meeting my miniature dachshund, Zoe, during the course of our work together. Zoe was my ‘fur-baby’ for over 12 years. Sadly, she passed away suddenly in July from a suspected aneurysm. At the time she seemed to be in relatively good health. To those who are not pet owners, it may be difficult to empathise with this but twelve years is a long time to have a second shadow and for it to then, not be there anymore. I was devastated.
Zoe helped raise our children. There was not a single mid-night feeding or wakening that I did alone. She was there by my side (or on my lap) with each of the children and through each pregnancy. I’ve had a number of surgeries over the years and Zoe was there throughout the recoveries. Back in our military days, Zoe was my sole companion when it was my turn to be the military spouse in places far from home and family support. At times, Zoe had been the reason to wake up in the morning and to come home of an afternoon.
Zoe lived a full and adventurous life. It was marked by her bravery, endless loyalty and her appetite for ‘treats’. I joked that she had ‘nine lives’ as she was lost three times (escaped in search of the family), survived three snake bites (only one snake survived), narrowly survived eating two stolen blocks of rum & raisin dark chocolate (plus wrappers), a taste of Ant Rid as a pup and earlier this year, rat bait poisoning. With the near misses as a reminder, I had come to expect that the grief I would feel upon her passing would be significant. In reality, there was more to it than that, there was also trauma.
In the days that followed Zoe’s passing there was much upset amongst the family. For the children, it was understandably difficult for their young minds to comprehend how such a big part of their lives could be there snuggling with them on the lounge after lunch but gone from this earth by dinner. There were many questions and attempts to problem solve through the situation. There were bids for her to be ‘brought back’ by Santa, the tooth fairy, the wizard from Where’s Wally, or anyone else who may be able to perform the appropriate magic required. There were some tough life lessons. When Zoe returned home in an urn, there was some confusion but also some closure for them.
Whilst this was obviously difficult to navigate as a parent, for me the grief was starting to feel never-ending. It occurred to me that I wasn’t sleeping well, my body was depleted and I had begun to have nightmares. I was starting to avoid some things which brought on distress and in my mind, set me back from getting stuff done. Things like the dog bed – Zoe’s ultimate resting place – and her collar, which had found their way to the garage. I started to connect the dots and knowing how this story tends to go, it was time for EMDR.
A simple YouTube search reveals much about EMDR. If you’re interested in seeing the process I’m talking about, take a look, it’s very interesting.
Teasing apart grief from trauma, I needed to find the worst part of this experience for me, in this case it was an unhelpful thought. It was true that I didn’t want this time in my life to be over and for her to be gone. That was grief. The search continued…I often compare this process to the Physio finding the ‘knot’ in the muscle, the bit that really hurts. That’s the bit that needs to be desensitised.
I went through the usual culprits, the ‘not good enough’, the ‘not worthwhile’ but these didn’t resonate. And then, there it was, under Responsibility – I should have done something / known better – and as a consequence, I brought this pain on myself and my family. Bingo. That was it, that one hurt.
What is also required for EMDR is one’s preferred way of thinking about the situation, the helpful thought – I did the best I could – fit for me. It felt somewhat true but I wasn’t there yet. This is what the experience will be reprocessed with after desensitisation has occurred. From there it was the usual process and whilst it was not as dramatic an experience as some, I felt relief.
The grief is still a process that takes time and self compassion but the trauma part was resolved. I did do the best I could, it felt true. Being able to speak about what had happened without being overwhelmed meant I could then take in new information. The kind words from others and the lovely handwritten sympathy card sent by Zoe’s vet clinic which was so kind and validated my sense of loss.
I conclude with an extract from the late poet, Robert Frost. His work has always resonated with me, particularly at times of significance. It’s a little dark but it reminds me that to truly appreciate the light in our lives, we need to experience darkness too.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
By ANGELA PITT
~ In loving memory of Zoe ~