How my wife's traumatic death affected my physical health

By Dan Cross, co-founder of StrongMen

I was quite shaky in the months after Nikki died and my speech was slurred. It was explained to me that this is a classic, physiological impact of trauma.

I lost Nicky my wife in 2015 to murder and I was a witness via being on the telephone to her at the time. The first time I can remember feeling different physically was in the police car on the way back from where I was in Hull. I was freezing and I couldn’t warm up and no doubt that was shock, but I’ve always been someone who is hot. After the shock had subsided, I was still always cold – it didn’t matter if the heating was on or not. It was a horrible feeling. The coldness lasted about two years and I think when you lose someone you lose a part of yourself; that person is part of what keeps you going everyday – they’re part of your soul and when I lost Nick, I lost that love and warmth that she’d provided me.

The ensuing months were a bit of a blur - I was looking around for support for myself, but didn’t really know what I wanted. I was just really lost. At that time nothing felt right for me – I was still in my old perception that those things aren’t appealing to me as a man. I didn’t want to talk to a stranger - I didn’t feel like any qualifications under the sun could really help somebody understand what I was going through – they wouldn’t be able to help.

It was only through eventually putting my hand up and saying ‘Look, there’s a lot going through my mind with regards to trauma that I can’t cope with and it’s not getting better.’ It was becoming more and more impactful and led to physical problems in my body.

Talking to a counsellor about PTSD gave me an insight into how my brain was working and understanding my own physiology is what really helped me. I just wanted to know why my brain was doing what it was and how I could fix it on a mechanical level. I work in IT so that’s how I think: how can I fix it and put a plan in place? It opened my eyes to other treatments that were out there, and that I’d maybe been a bit closed off before and now I was open to things.  

I was quite shaky in the months after Nicky died and my speech was slurred. It was explained to me that this is a classic, physiological impact of trauma, because a lot of my brain had shut down to protect me, because you’re constantly in flight or fright mode and slurred speech can be one of the side effects. I’d never been so tired but couldn’t sleep. I remember feeling muscle soreness even though I hadn’t been doing anything; my back was stiff like an old man for months. I guess that was all a build-up of stress hormones.  It’s emotionally and physically exhausting and it takes its toll on you. Nothing compares to that grief tiredness. It’s the emotional torture that goes along with it and the more tired you get the more emotional you get – it’s just a vicious circle.

I had really bad migraines and there wasn’t a day where I didn’t have a headache. I went to the doctor for crippling stomach aches where I was doubled up in pain. He told me that it was due to stress hormones building up in my body and that I needed to physically disperse them. But I didn’t really want to go out – the way Nicky died I just felt that spotlight feeling, and I was really confined indoors a lot. I hated the thought of going outside because of the press and that kind of intrusion; the press still wanted to talk to me – they weren’t camped outside the house, but it was a case of even people in the street I couldn’t bear to see, and I felt that everyone was talking about what happened. I felt that if people saw me coming, they would turn round and walk the other way. Nobody knew what to say to me, or how to address me in any way, so it was quite difficult to be out in public.

 My friends just dragged me out for walks and jogs and it was while I was doing these that I started to talk to them about how I was feeling

But my friends just dragged me out for walks and jogs and it was while I was doing these that I started to talk to them about how I was feeling. I was so focused on doing the exercise that my guard would come down a little bit – it was like having a therapy session without realising it and the lads said they’d absolutely loved doing that for me and that they’d been really worried about me.  The stomach aches subsided and the headaches went away after a few weeks of engaging in exercise again. 

But that overwhelming feeling of loss and heartbreak that sticks right under your sternum, that hurts and that stays there a long, long time and is ever present - I think that’s just something that gradually subsides over a long time.

My children and I are six years down the line now and we’re still a work in progress and always will be. But talking definitely helps - that is the real therapy, the exercise has to go alongside it, but once you feel you have somebody to talk to and you feel supported; once you feel like you’re not on your own and you don’t feel so different anymore, then recovery can happen. 

Child Bereavement UK is privileged to work with StrongMen to train peer supporters who are offering support to others through the charity's Man2Man service. 

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