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.
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'.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
Woodroffe, Counsellor and Trainer
Contact via The Child Bereavement Trust (01494 446648)