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Traumatic loss of a child and timeless attachment: David’s story

After the tragic loss of his daughter, Anna Phillips, David founded a mental health charity in her name which supports people facing trauma related mental health challenges.

Please note: this blog contains content that some readers may find distressing.

Losing a child is unbearably painful and profoundly life-changing, as the natural attachment bond is physically severed.

But there is a form of enduring attachment which persists beyond the traumatic immediacy of loss.

My daughter Anna died suddenly on 1 June 2015 in tragic circumstances. To experience the death of your child is almost impossible to communicate to an unknown audience and especially in writing.

As I hold this pen and try to place my memories on paper seven and half years after Anna’s death, I simultaneously recall shards of traumatic memory and search for abstractions we call language to share my experience with the reader.

I have read countless documents, too many in fact. Just flat, cold sheets of paper with technical words written on them either referring directly to Anna’s difficult circumstances, her feelings, her actions, her beliefs and real hopes. They are all isolated facts about a person but do not convey the story of a life lived.

The psychologist and psychiatrist’s opinion, the pathologist and Police reports, and the statements of the milkman and taxi driver. All dated, time-stamped and final in their certainty. And yet, I still feel such a deep, timeless connection beyond all the above, as if this was all a terrible nightmare and did not occur.

A significant part of my ongoing trauma is the irrevocable realisation that in this tragedy there are raw facts of what happened to Anna and then final opinions of what was considered publicly digestible and so permissible.

And yet I feel that having been so privileged to know Anna for the brief twenty years of her young life, there is so much more to understand and communicate about how events had led her to this finality.

I recall the devastating shock when an ICU nurse called me from Truro Hospital in Cornwall. As shocked as I was I already sensed what she was going to tell me before she came to the end point, giving me the time of Anna’s death. I think she asked me if there was somebody with me. There wasn’t at the time. I put the phone down.

Silence. Stillness. Numb. Disbelief. Silence.

Then I became acutely anxious. As if my stomach had been knocked out. I had to pick my mother up from a hospital appointment and would have to tell her that Anna was dead.

In the following weeks and months, I must have lost the sense of time. It no longer seemed to matter. One form of loss is bound by time. We know death occurred and we can measure the time that has passed. But attachment is beyond our concept of time. Could it be that attachment is timeless?

For months after losing Anna I had great difficulties regulating my emotions. During this period of emotional and affect dysregulation, the swings were very wide and totally unpredictable.

For example, I would be in a supermarket and suddenly on hearing a child cry out I would lose control and become deeply distressed and sad. It became debilitating and I would have to stop and try so hard to collect myself.

On other occasions, I may be walking on the coast looking out to sea, or planting trees in the woodlands, and the same effect results.

Even the sound of a bird singing and suddenly I would collapse and feel as if my insides were knocked out.

If I felt the dysregulation while driving the car I would have to pull over into a layby and wait for the pain to subside.

Time and again I would be hit by this tsunami of emotional upset and affect dysregulation. These episodes would last between 2 and 10 minutes and were frequent in the months after losing Anna.

While they are less frequent and less intense today, I still get these unexpected visceral shocks. They carry vivid memories of Anna, as if they were from yesterday, and are still upsetting when they happen, though they are a bit more manageable now.

To help me manage the trauma, I have reflected very much on the relationship between attachment and trauma. And in this case the final and irremediable rupture of knowing a person directly through the senses and yet still experiencing visceral sensations related to enduring attachment.

I do not know if there are current studies looking at attachment in this way, which ask the question ‘How can attachment extend beyond the physical realm of our lives? And what physiological mechanism causes us to feel this enduring phenomenon of attachment loss trauma?’

Following Anna’s death I founded The Anna Phillips Foundation, a registered charity established in memory of Anna to help people with trauma-related mental health challenges.

Our work reflects both the virtue and the feeling of compassion. We take a proactive approach, with a positive, life-affirming view of the human condition. Each person is unique with specific and individual needs. Our compassionate way respects the needs of each individual. It also speaks to an enduring universal wisdom.

We recently launched a new study into experiences of trauma. To find out more including how you can get involved, visit our study page.


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David Phillips
David Phillips is the Founder and Chair of Trustees of The Anna Phillips Foundation.
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