What is traumatic grief?

Nothing fully prepares you for a loss. Even if you know a loved one has a terminal illness, you will still feel grief when they die. But what about when a loss is sudden or unexpected? Then you might be facing traumatic grief.

You surely know that grief is an emotional response to any kind of loss — particularly the death of someone close to you. You probably have a good idea about trauma, too. It’s the emotional response to experiencing or witnessing a horrific event or series of events. Traumatic grief, therefore, combines elements of these two realities. The result is an intense emotional stew that usually requires some professional support.

What Can Cause Traumatic Grief?

The circumstances and specifics surrounding a death can have the potential to cause traumatic grief. I say potential because it doesn’t always traumatize a person. However, there are some details that can increase the likelihood of traumatic grief. The death:

  • occurred without warning.
  • is viewed as untimely.
  • involved violence and/or a criminal act.
  • caused severe damage and disfigurement to your loved one.
  • was something you witnessed.

Beyond that, there are perceptions to consider. The above facts are one thing, but what about when a survivor views the loss in ways that feel impossible to accept? For example, the survivor may deem the death to have been preventable or unjust. They may now fear for their own life.

Any of the above can intensify the feeling of shock caused by a loved one’s passing. It can also put you at a higher risk of traumatic grief. If the survivor is already struggling with mental health issues like anxiety or depression, again, the chance of trauma is higher.

Do Children Feel Traumatic Grief?

Unfortunately, the short answer is yes. Several factors are at play here, e.g.:

  • How old is the child?
  • Have they previously dealt with grief and loss?
  • What is the state of emotional health?
  • Do they have trusted adults around to support them?

man of color dressed in a nice hoodie stroking beard looking off into distanceSigns and Symptoms of Traumatic Grief

As with any grief experience, these signs and symptoms can vary widely from person to person. Even so, there are some universal red flags to watch for. These include some reactions that are not unusual with grief — only with more intensity:

  • Feeling sad and lonely
  • Unable to accept what has happened, shocked, and in disbelief
  • Guilt
  • Relief
  • Anger
  • Despair and hopelessness
  • Losing a sense of identity or purpose
  • Feeling as if you must know everything about what happened
  • Intrusive thoughts about the person who died

Physical Signs of Traumatic Grief

  • Sleep disturbances — from nightmares to insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Changes in appetite
  • Dry mouth
  • Palpitations
  • Shallow breathing
  • Muscles aches, tension, trembling, weakness, and pain
  • Headaches

Emotional or Behavioral Signs of Traumatic Grief

  • Flashbacks
  • Pervasive fear
  • Free-floating anxiety
  • Easily startled
  • Trying to push away all thoughts and memories pertaining to the trauma
  • Feeling numb and detached
  • Avoiding people connected in any way to the deceased or the death

In children, any or all of the above symptoms are important to look for. Also, children struggling with traumatic grief may suddenly start:

  • Wetting the bed
  • Acting out in school/Having academic problems
  • Acting as if they were younger and needier
  • Expressing intense fears about their safety and the safety of the people in their life

Getting the Help You Need for Traumatic Grief Symptoms

If the above discussion resonates with you, you’re probably going through a rather tough time right now. The most important first step is to acknowledge and accept the possible presence of traumatic grief. You can suppress or ignore it.

Yes, talking about your pain is difficult, but that’s why therapy is so vital. Your weekly sessions are where you can give voice to your grief and move toward resolution.

Reach out to me for help with trauma therapy.