Updated: Nov 22
Death, loss, and grief are natural parts of life. But when death arrives suddenly and unexpectedly –as happens when a loved one dies in an accident or commits suicide–, the overlap of the traumatic experience and the grief of the loss can be overwhelming.
Traumatic grief can be experienced like a free fall into a well of despair, as your everyday life collides with a shocking, confusing, and painful new reality.
This is why, sometimes, people feel stuck in the grieving process, unable to find a way forward. And why, especially when the loved one was a child, some people even choose not to go through the grieving process, because they feel that if they do, they will leave them behind and move on.
Not every sudden or catastrophic loss results in traumatic grief. Some people experience uncomplicated bereavement, whereas others experience signs of both trauma and grief.
Because of the trauma embedded within the grief, it can be challenging to differentiate between post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), grief, and traumatic grief.
PTSD symptoms generally start within a month, and in about 1/3 of cases, symptoms are still being suffered more than a year later if appropriate care is not provided. It often includes having recurring thoughts about the event, which can manifest itself through vivid flashbacks, or upsetting nightmares and intense distress when reminded of it. Exaggerated startle responses to perceived threats, such as loud noises, are common. Also fear that similar events might happen, or even a belief that they will happen, which may be reinforced if the person has had more than one traumatic event happen to them in their life.
Grief is the natural emotional response to the loss of someone close, such as a family member or friend. Grief can also occur after a serious illness, a divorce or other significant losses. It is a journey that affects every person differently, but usually feels overwhelming, making it hard or even impossible to think about anything else. Its effects can often resemble depression, and some people do develop depression following a significant loss. Some people may feel drained and exhausted, making it difficult to do simple things or even leave the house they live in, while others cope by becoming more active. Some people like to express their emotions publicly, while others choose to keep their feelings private. For most people, the intensity of grief eases over time and the episodes of grief become less frequent. A person who has processed grief may always miss the person who passed, but is able to find meaning and experience pleasure again; some even find new meaning for their lives, wisdom, and strength.
Grief is usually described in relation to the death of a loved one, but other types of major loss can also lead to feelings of grief, ie:
Separation or divorce.
The loss of a beloved pet.
Work changes, like unemployment or retirement.
The loss of good health because of an illness, accident, or disability.
The diagnosis of a terminal illness.
Miscarriage or infertility.
Moving away or separation from family or friends.
Having an "empty nest" –when children leave home.
We all experience different variations of grief. At some point or another, we will all lose people that we love, capacities that we used to have, jobs that were life-giving, locations that we once enjoyed. Traumatic grief, that is, the grief that accompanies loss that is unexpected, is different. Such a loss triggers post-trauma survival mechanisms in addition to the mourning of whatever was unexpectedly lost. The degree of unexpectedness that makes grief traumatic varies from person to person.
Engaging with traumatic loss through Trauma Healing can help you learn to self-regulate and achieve some reduction in post-trauma stress and tension, enough to be able to engage with life and feel grief without triggering a hyper (fight/flight) or hypo (freeze) response. In doing so, you will be able to reframe your worldview about your-Self and your past, and change the way you define healing, resilience, and post-traumatic growth.
Answering these questions may be helpful to define if you are experiencing a traumatic grief process:
Do you have very distressing thoughts or flashbacks about the traumatic event when you don’t want to, or have nightmares about it?
Do you avoid situations that remind you of it?
Are you easily startled and feel as though there are threats around you?
Have you experienced intense emotional pain, sadness, or pangs of grief?
Do you feel bitterness or anger related to his/her death?
Do you put an intense blame on others because of his/her death?
Do you feel emotionally numb?
Do you feel detached from other people or activities?
Is it hard for you to trust others?
Do you experience confusion about your role in life or a diminished sense of self?
Do you feel as if a part of you has died along with him/her?
Do you have intrusive and frequent thoughts and longings about the death of your loved one, when you are trying to think about other things?
Is it more than two months after the death and you are still finding it very hard to accept the death has happened and consider the future positively?
Doing Trauma Healing work may help you recognize your capacities, creativity, and even your vulnerabilities, as a tremendous resource for living.
I am here for you.