Trauma is invisible and other lessons learnt when my 16 year old witnessed a suicide

Reading a book to discover that the last chapter is missing

Recently I learnt that suicide does not just cause a ripple effect but instead a great big, take your breath away wave.

If I cannot share our experience then I just contribute to the stigma.  It is time to be open and honest.  I am not going to be brushing the wider impact of suicide under the carpet.

Suicide is an uncomfortable word, one that brings up a jumble of emotions, darkness, confusion and fear.  The word suicide is often met with unease.  I found myself saying the word apologetically, waiting tentatively for the listeners response.  Quite often their mind begins to wander as they recall how suicide once impacted their life. They remember the person lost, it could be an uncle, a cousin, a friends brother, there is a look of pure sadness and loss.  I have recently become all to aware of how many families and peoples life’s have been impacted by suicide.

The more open I have been about our experience the more people have shared with me.  A life lost to suicide leaves an array of unanswered questions. Like reading a book to discover the last chapter is missing.  They will not be forgotten.

Although it affects more than just the direct family and friends, one loss to suicide can impact so many.

Suicide got real

So when my son recently phoned me and said “Mum can you come and pick me up, there has been an incident at the train station”.   I had no idea of the emotional rollercoaster that lie ahead.

My son was travelling home from his pre 16 College by both bus and train.  I try my hardest not to be a helicopter parent and this opportunity has allowed him the freedom and independence to spread his wings a little before adulthood.

The incident he witnessed was a suicide, done in a traumatic and public way and my son saw more than anyone ever should, nothing could really prepare us.

My logical brain and my emotional brain have been sparring ever since, how can you feel love and anger for someone you never met?  As human beings we naturally have empathy for others, there was no relationship to grieve, they were not a family member, a friend or a colleague but they did leave a footprint in our lives.  We had emotions to process.

As a parent you would rather go through a bad experience 10 times than your child to experience it once.  It started me thinking for everyone that experiences a trauma there are many others who it naturally effects just because they care.  It’s a ripple effect with no end, it just goes on and on.

We were in shock, protected by the numbness.  We retreated from the world and lived in an invisible bubble, it was surreal.  I couldn’t even think about the Coronavirus loo roll shortage.

It was an unwanted but eye opening experience and I have a suspicion that my learnings are not quite over yet.

PTSD is not mind over matter or to test strength of character but instead an involuntary survival response to trauma

What I have learnt, no book, training course or conversation could ever teach me. Trauma is invisible to the onlooker, how many people are out there just living with trauma as their normal?  How many of the people around them are none the wiser?

Now I pride myself in that I usually instinctively know when someone is struggling, I can see their nervousness and anxiety, yet to my son I was blind.  Maybe I was too close?  Was it too soon?  Maybe the physical signs would be evident later?

At what point do you believe or challenge when someone declares that they are fine?  “I’m okay”, “yes of course I would tell you if I wasn’t”, “Yes mum, I promise”.  In my sons defence he believed he was fine and really, I just wanted to believe him.

Logically I knew my son had experienced a life changing trauma but I wanted to believe he would be fine, he wanted to be fine, we all wanted him to be fine.  I hate the word fine.

My son is kind, intelligent, mature and wise beyond his years, I trusted his judgement.

I am a Therapeutic Coach, I see the impact PTSD can have on clients years after the event took place.  I am not sure if as mum this helped or fuelled fear

Now I am not a doctor or a scientist and this is just a hunch but maybe the person with the trauma doesn’t even recognise that they have trauma, it becomes their normal, their survival response?

The Services, the Rail Staff, the College, and of course family and friends have been superb but we all know that this is a matter of time.  This is a process and really there are no rules. The not knowing is the cruel part.

My son did not want to talk to us about what he saw, I supported this and didn’t pursue.  Home needed to be his safe place.  He just wanted me to be mum, I cannot tell you how many midweek roast dinners I have cooked but I feel that they will soon be off the menu. Possibly next week, or the week after or when he has had enough of them.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well he appeared.  He was playing his guitar, he was back at college following a staggered process of visiting the train station until he felt comfortable.  He was a little quieter than usual but doing remarkably well considering, or so I thought.

Getting back in the saddle

This was hard, wanting to keep him safely at home but I also knew that he needed to get back to the train station.  The longer it was left the harder it would be.

With the support of the Police and the rail staff we visited the station.  I cannot begin to explain how imperative this support has been.

Did you know that the rail staff are trained to handle these situations?  I certainly didn’t, I am still undecided whether this is an absolute blessing or a very sad necessity.

Now I wouldn’t say it was a pleasant journey but again on the outside he seemed okay.  He was determined that he would still get the train to college.  I was relieved but also had to fight and keep my ‘what ifs’ under control.

The train staff ensured me that if he had any problems he could go to any member of staff where they would assist and support him.  This reassurance is priceless.  It almost takes away the sting out of the train fare.

The first train journey I traveled with him.  We both felt it went well, considering.  Again nothing obvious.  He was then ready to travel alone.

The Rewind Technique

I suggested several times that we could try doing the Rewind Technique but as any therapist knows getting to help those closest to you is not so easy.  Also he would insist that he felt fine.

Then one day he agreed.  So I seized the opportunity before he changed his mind. Even though I have helped with this method countless times this time I was nervous.

Being quizzical he insisted on completing the check sheet where clients score their response to certain questions.  This would then be evidence of improvements.  I certainly was not prepared for the results and neither was he.

The scores indicate whether someone is experiencing trauma, if they score above 25 it indicates trauma and The Rewind is advised. My son’s score was 57, far too high for comfort.

He seemed just fine considering the situation, a little bit quieter than usual but fine.

He still talked, laughed, played his guitar, raved about films. He was still excited about dinner, seeing his friends and moaning about Maths and emptying the dishwasher.  Yet he was experiencing involuntary flashbacks, unwanted memories and reminders, he had already accepted them as his new normal.

This was my biggest and boldest learning. The effects were evident but invisible!

Opening up and being honest helps but can just be too frightening for some.  It is about finding the right help for you.  Personally I do not believe that talking about a trauma in detail is helpful.  For my client or myself. There are other options, do your research, listen to your instincts.  If you are living with trauma and you only reduce it by 20% it could still change your life.

Of course I recommend The Rewind Technique as I have seen it work so often, yet nothing is 100%.  It is too soon for me to report the outcome with my son but I will ensure he gets all the help he needs.  Even when he insists he’s fine.

PTSD Trauma Resolution


Only the day before this incident he had excitedly applied for his A’levels at a closer college, which will not require a train.  He has friends, hobbies and a bright future.  He has work experience arranged as a script writer in the Easter holidays, life is looking good.  We keep reminding ourselves of that.

This will never ever be a positive experience but our son will be stronger, wiser, more resilient and a more humble human being.

Our son has his life ahead, with trains to catch, stories to write and a life full of future adventures.


#ptsd #trauma