It was meant to be a good day. A day full of positive distractions. A day of moving forward with new ambitions. The type of day when we least expect PTSD triggers to strike. The type of day that we both happily let our guard down. Though maybe it was because of that, when the intrusions unexpectedly began to flood his mind I saw they had hit him that bit harder, and for that bit longer.
But that’s not what upset me the most that day.
He came home and let me know right away that his day had been a particularly bad one. No, he didn’t know what he felt. No, he didn’t know what he needed. There’s no easy way for him to escape the memories, and no possible way for him to normalise them. In his torment, he craved space, but I could also sense he still desperately needed to stay close to our love and support.
It’s always upsetting to see him like this, but that’s not what upset me the most that day.
It was as the children and I sat down to our dinner, after first gently checking on my husband, that the surge of questions began. Is Daddy okay? Why is he not eating his dinner? Why is he outside in the dark on the swing by himself? Why is he just sitting there doing nothing? Mummy, why does Daddy look so sad?
I always strive to be open with my children, and I generally trust that they will only ask a question if they’re ready to hear the answer. But the next question from my daughter truly rattled me.
Already, at seven, my daughter can be deeply perceptive. Just like me, she could see her father was on his own, but was not actually alone. Just like me, she could read the torment on his face as he became utterly swamped by the dark memories that will never fade. And just like me, she already holds real-life fears.
“Mummy, do people sometimes kill themselves?”
I willed myself not to let the shock of her question register on my face. I willed myself not to look over at my husband outside. I needed a second to breathe. “Do you want an honest answer?”
As I attempted to find the words that might form a sensitive reply, I was suddenly grateful that my 5-year-old son had briefly left the table, thankfully not hearing our conversation. And I morosely let myself wonder what other families were discussing around their dinner tables that evening. “Sometimes people have so much sadness and hurt inside them, and for such a long time, that they feel there’s no other way to stop it. They believe that nothing could ever make them feel better, that no one could possibly help.”
Her eyes were locked on mine. I held them. I needed her to really hear what I was about to say next. “And yes, sometimes they may want to kill themselves. They think it will end their pain, but often they don’t realise that the hurt and sadness won’t end there. It will be passed onto all the people that love them and miss them – their friends, their family, and their children.”
She took in my words. I could see her turning the answer over in her mind as she glanced out the window at her father. “Will Daddy do that?”
Once again, I wasn’t prepared. I thought I still had more time before encountering these heavy questions. How could I tell her that I don’t know for sure? How could I honestly admit that it’s never a certainty when PTSD is involved?
“No darling, Daddy won’t do that.”
It wasn’t enough for her. “But Mummy, what if he decided to?”
“We know Daddy has sadness and hurt inside him because of the PTSD, but Daddy knows that we all love him so much and that we’re here to help him in any way we can. And he would never want to do anything to hurt us.”
On a day that was meant to be a good day, I talked about suicide with my daughter years before it should even be in her vocabulary. I acknowledged the raw truths of PTSD. And then, as I spoke out loud some of the darkest fears I harbour, I recognised the same fears in my own children.
On a day that ended up anything but good, it was this reality that upset me the most.