Do Bereaved Parents Have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

NatSophia 177

By Suzanne Leigh

It was a routine medical check-up. I needed vitals, a blood draw and a review of my prescription meds. I wasn’t scared: I am healthy and fit with the blood pressure of an athlete. And even if a sneaky malevolent cancer were to surface, while hugely inconvenient, it would not make me feel extraordinarily burdened. (This, apparently, is normal in newly bereaved parents.)

So why was the wait in my doctor’s office making my palms clammy? I had brought my newspaper, but I couldn’t focus on the news — and certainly not the terrorist attack in Boston.

Outside the closed door, I could hear the click, click, click of busy high heels up and down the hallway. I felt the uncomfortable sensations of panic. So much so that when the door was opened by an LVN with syringe and alcohol wipes, she mistook my sweat-glazed brow and wild-eyed expression as needle phobia.

Nope, I wasn’t afraid of a needle prick.

As I rolled up my shirt sleeve, I realized what it was that had elevated my adrenaline. The sounds of those heels scurrying from patient to patient, the careful closing of doors for privacy, and the accompanying images of competent important people in white coats with charts and equipment and an entourage of eager interns brought me back to another medical setting — the pediatric treatment clinic that Natasha had frequented in the last months of her life. That was the place where I had had to participate in conversations that were superlative in their brutality: ones that have made me redefine words like “crisis” and “tragedy.”

The pain of purple flowers

On another recent occasion I was eyeing the flowers in a florist when I saw tulips – my favorite flower – a beautiful shade of muted purple. The color produced a tsunami of sadness. What was that about? I had subconsciously equated the color of the tulips with the color of one of Natasha’s favorite shirts, the one she wore frequently in the last days of her life.

In an article for the San Francisco Chronicle, I wrote about the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder among parents of children with cancer, especially brain tumor. The criteria for the disorder as listed in the DSM-IV, the bible for mental health clinicians, include intense fear, helplessness or horror; recurrent nightmares and flashbacks; anger outbursts and heightened startle response; and avoidance of events, people or places associated with the trauma.

Psychologist and author, Carol Kearns, whose own daughter died at age 7, says that PTSD can be present in bereaved parents. That puzzles me because the mental state of a parent caring for a child with cancer seems somewhat different from that of a bereaved parent.

These days, we are no longer on red alert for calls from school reporting a headache or nausea, for upcoming MRIs or other scans and oncology appointments, and for sudden symptoms and side effects that might warrant an immediate exit for ER. We are no longer in flight-or-fight mode because our beloved Natasha is with us no longer. The fear that rattled our lives for five years has been replaced by undiluted sadness.

PTSD or just sadness?

Could bereaved parents be suffering from PTSD? Certainly some of the criteria listed in the DSM-IV match how we feel. But I wonder about the relative ease in which PTSD might be identified: in mental health, patients seem to like diagnoses, and therapists and drug companies like them even more. (Remember when ADHD kids – or some of them – were just “boisterous,” when children were described as “unusual” or “odd” as opposed to being “on the spectrum,” and kids that were repeatedly sent to the principal’s office were “disobedient” rather than having “conduct disorder”?).

Kearns recommends that bereaved parents suffering from PTSD might consider a support group called the Compassionate Friends, seek therapy or consult with a psychiatrist to discuss anti-depressants.

I have another suggestion for bereaved cancer parents, regardless of whether PTSD is a possibility. Find a bereaved parent you relate to; someone who has also done time in Cancerland.  I’ve shared my doctor appointment experience with my bereaved cancer mom friends. They get it. They’ve shuddered during routine medical check-ups, too.


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