Imagine for a moment that you carry an invisible suitcase. You have had this suitcase all your life and you have carried it everywhere you have been. There are certain things about this suitcase which are important.
Firstly the suitcase packs itself – you have no control over what is packed in the suitcase. You cannot open the suitcase – the suitcase opens itself at times when you least expect it to open. The suitcase is opened by smells, sounds, places, pictures, and words, to name just a few, of the ‘opening triggers’.
Into the suitcase over the years have been packed good events and hurtful events in a particular form. Sometimes packing has taken the form of an emotion. Sometimes a fact has been joined to an emotion.
For example; maybe a fact has been packed in the suitcase without any emotional attachment e.g., on 26th October 1989 there was a violent storm. Alternatively a fact and an emotion may be packed together e.g. on July 27th my father died, so on that day (fact) each year I will experience a feeling (emotion) – fact and emotion go hand in hand in this form of packing.
I said earlier that the suitcase opens itself with one of the ‘opening triggers’ – let me illustrate. One day when leaving a shop in town I walked into a cloud of a woman’s perfume. The perfume was the same one worn by a close female friend who’d died at a relatively young age from cancer. The smell of the perfume immediately transported me back to her funeral. I did not have time to stop and think or to control what happened next. I was back at the funeral and all the subsequent feelings flooded back. For a period of time I was pre-occupied with the feelings.
In the metaphoric language my suitcase was opened. It seems that the length of time of packing makes little or no difference. Triggers can open the suitcase and bring to surface facts and emotions that the conscious mind had long forgotten. Childhood memories are as readily exposed as adult memories. Sometimes when the suitcase is opened good, happy and genuinely pleasant experiences are brought into the present. More often people experience the hurtful, sad and difficult “items” from the past. “Items” that the person believed had long since been forgotten or even healed. It can be a real shock to find that the item has been packed with all the emotional content of the first event. It is the suitcase that makes the journey of the grieving individual so difficult. Time after time a sound or smell opens the suitcase and you face raw feelings. Often when this happens the moment is so private that it is difficult to share, especially if time has passed and others expectation is that healing should have occurred. The very privacy and pain make for a very isolating moment when the suitcase opens. The feeling of isolation makes the moment even worse and so the fateful circular motion of the grieving takes over.
My guess is that most people encounter this “suitcase syndrome’ at some stage. My experience is that some do this with out damaging their emotional or physical health. People who constantly close their suitcase can damage their emotional and physical health sometimes with far reaching consequences. The worst option is to stuff everything back into the suitcase and sit on it to keep it closed.
It seems that when the suitcase opens a less damaging option is to examine the exposed ‘item’. Examining the exposed item usually means talking about it. Talking with someone who will simply listen and who resists the temptation to help ‘sit on the suitcase’. Phrases like ‘it will get better’, ‘you should be over this by now’ (and I am sure you can think of others!) are all closing phrases. They may at the time seem helpful but may, in the long term, contribute to damage to health, the very thing that was trying to be avoided. Items stuffed back into the suitcase are known to re-appear, often in a different state (physical symptoms) at a later date.
Experiences show that emotions expressed do not remove the item from the suitcase. Expression does mean that should the suitcase be opened again, at some future moment, the pain of the packed ‘item’ will probably be less. If the pain of the exposed item is less the memory is more bearable hence toleration of grief begins.
Ian Woodroffe, Counsellor and Trainer
Contact via The Child Bereavement Trust (01494 446648)