Traumatic Grief Therapy: Definition, Purpose + FAQs

Updated

Traumatic grief therapy is a relatively new development in treating the intense pain and sorrow following a traumatic loss. This type of grief combines bereavement, loss of a loved one, and trauma, where suffering and trauma intersect.

Trauma and its aftermath yield unique grief experiences that are highly different from those of ordinary grief. Addressing traumatic grief goes beyond when we don't know what to say when a loved one dies unexpectedly.

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Instead, traumatic grief attaches to survivors linked to the incident or occurrence that took a loved one's life. It can also occur when a surviving individual witnessed the tragic event or was the one to discover a deceased loved one.

These are only some of the possible instances where traumatic grief has the potential to surface. Having to make difficult medical decisions regarding a loved one's continuation of life support, for example, can also lead to similar trauma responses. 

What Is Traumatic Grief Therapy?

Traumatic grief therapy is a therapy that addresses the traumatic grief responses associated with a traumatic death or another significant traumatic loss. Dealing with traumatic grief includes managing and regulating an individual's emotions and reducing the effects of the trauma and its symptoms. Traumatic grief therapy aims at teaching trauma survivors how to process their loss and cope with their experiences. 

This form of therapy is still relatively new, as therapists are learning how to treat the signs and symptoms while differentiating them from normal grief. 

Medical research has pinpointed so far that when trauma and grief happen simultaneously, the grief reactions tend to last longer and are more distressing than usual. For example, a person who's undergone a traumatic event in their life has an increased risk of having suicidal thoughts, especially if they are young adults. 

Trauma survivors also tend to have higher rates of intrusive negative thoughts, experience symptoms repeatedly and demonstrate higher levels of impaired performance at school or work. Because most grief reactions are similar to ordinary grief, it's essential to learn how to tell the difference between normal loss and traumatic grief. 

One way of doing so is to take the type of traumatic event and compare it to the survivor's grief reactions. Another way is to look at the relationship the survivor had with the person or persons who died.  

When a loved one dies suddenly and unexpectedly, their loved ones left behind may feel traumatized, and in some cases, even victimized. Traumatic grief therapy helps these individuals deal with the intense grief reactions that follow. The methods associated with this type of therapy can help bereaved individuals deal with their painful emotions healthily.

Traumatic grief therapy helps people who've experienced the sudden death of a loved one. This type of therapy is a healthy approach to processing the painful emotions of intense grief. Examples of death that might lead to traumatic grief include:

  • Accidents
  • Homicide
  • Medical crises
  • Overdoses
  • Suicide

When a tragic death happens unexpectedly, it's normal not to know what to do when someone dies. The grief resources and information widely available tend to focus on ordinary grief and processing mourning, leaving a massive gap in treating traumatic grief. 

Because traumatic grief is a new and emerging subset of grief, there are very few known methods of addressing the consequences of this type of grief and bereavement. 

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What’s the Difference Between Traumatic Grief Therapy and Normal Grief Therapy?

Traumatic grief therapy is a form of grief counseling that combines processing the traumatic event and working through complicated grief. Therapists reserve this therapy for those who've suffered trauma and have difficulty coping with the events leading to loss. 

Prolonged grief and complicated grief disorder are often associated with traumatic grief. Traumatic grief therapy promotes resilience and adapting to changed circumstances, while routine grief therapy focuses on helping an individual grieving move through the stages of grief. 

There are seven core procedures or phases of complicated grief therapy. Each one takes the bereaved individual on a step-by-step journey toward acknowledging the trauma they've suffered as well as helping them accept their loss.

The therapy guidelines for trauma are as follows:

  1. Teaching the survivor about complicated grief and what complex grief therapy is
  2. Promoting self-assessment and self-regulation of progress 
  3. Working on new goals
  4. Rebuilding connections with loved ones and community
  5. Going over the narrative of the story behind their loss
  6. Going back to revisit how life was before the loss
  7. Addressing memories and continuing bonds with the deceased

Treating grief is a process that takes time for healing to take place, whether suffering from normal or traumatic grief. Normal grief therapy focuses on helping the grieving process their mourning. One of the more traditional ways of treating normal grief is to use the cognitive or talk therapy method when seeing a grief counselor. Similarly, a grief therapist incorporates specific grief healing tasks to help an individual move through their grief. 

Regular grief therapy uses methods of helping the bereaved detach from the deceased to work through their feelings and attain a new relationship with their deceased loved one and come to terms with their absence. 

By contrast, many trauma survivors face the psychological recurrence of the distressing event, difficult memories, and severe trauma reactions. The experience and consequences of trauma make up this unique disorder.

Traumatic grief therapy helps the suffering individual to face the horrifying events of their loss and enables them to heal from specific psychological and physiological grief responses. Treatment for traumatic grief is similar to that of PTSD, where therapy helps the survivor manage their grief while erasing these intrusive images from their memory.

Trauma and grief are not mutually exclusive, however. In cases where survivors of accidents lose a loved one in the accident, or the murder of a family member occurs, or a young child dies suddenly and unexpectedly, a person can suffer both trauma and grief simultaneously.

Therapists can consider different factors of traumatic and normal grief during therapy. For example, the relationship of the survivor and deceased and their bond's closeness both have significance when treating traumatic grief.

The following breakdown might help you better understand the differences between trauma and normal grief and where they might intersect. 

Trauma

Those who suffer traumatic events will have some or all of these grief reactions:

  • Exposure to actual or threatened death
  • Intrusive images and distressing dreams
  • Intense distress and other severe psychological reactions
  • Avoidance of activities, detachment, and loss of interest
  • Trouble remembering events
  • Anger, irritability, and loss of hope

These reactions can accumulate over time if not dealt with appropriately, leaving a person struggling to live life normally while dealing with trauma.

Grief

An individual experiencing normal grief can exhibit some or all of these stressors:

  • Death of loved one
  • Grief dreams 
  • Yearning
  • Shock and disbelief
  • Numbness
  • Irritability and anger

A few of these stressors are similar to the five stages of grief described and defined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. As such, they may seem familiar to some.

Traumatic grief

The following are events, symptoms, and reactions related to traumatic grief syndrome are:

  • The traumatic death of a loved one 
  • Avoidance/detachment
  • Difficulty acknowledging death or shock
  • Emptiness/loss of hope
  • Anger over death

There are many overlapping similarities between grief and trauma. Trained grief counselors or therapists can help distinguish the best course of treatment in a particular situation. 

What Typically Happens During a Traumatic Grief Therapy Session?

A traumatic grief therapist will typically tailor your therapy sessions to your specific needs based on your symptoms and experiences. During your first session, you can expect to get acquainted with the therapist, learn about traumatic grief therapy, and go over the traumatic experience you've recently suffered. 

Future therapy sessions might include a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy, acceptance therapy, and interpersonal therapy. You can expect the therapist to obtain a family and relationship background from you, your current life situation, your stressors, and your coping mechanisms.

The therapist will get an overall feel of where you’re at psychologically, emotionally, and physiologically. Between sessions, you’ll get grief-work assignments like journaling, meditation, or light exercise.

During your time in therapy, you can learn to develop new routines and structures to help you rebuild trust and safety. As treatment progresses, your therapist might introduce visualization exercises, revisiting past traumatic events, and confronting your fears.

Who Is Traumatic Grief Therapy For (Or Not For)?

Traumatic grief therapy aims at helping individuals cope with the experience of severe psychological trauma resulting from exposure to distressing events. This therapy is better suited for people who have difficulty dealing with their experiences and are suffering from prolonged and complicated grief as a result.

Not everyone who experiences traumatic events will suffer from profound stress and an inability to cope. Many trauma survivors live everyday lives without experiencing post-traumatic stress or the adverse effects associated with traumatic events.  

Who it’s for

This specialized type of therapy helps individuals who’ve suffered through stressful events, traumas, and exposure to dangerous or deadly circumstances or events and are suffering from neurophysiological trauma as a result.

Neurophysiological trauma can include experiencing of fear in dangerous situations, surviving a mass shooting, surviving an auto accident where others died, causing the death of another person, or surviving war conditions and captivity.

Some individuals who suffer from trauma may develop the recurrence of traumatic memories and images. They may find themselves going back and forth between states of calm and panic, agitation, anger, and hypervigilance. These are all effects that trauma has on a person’s memory and difficulty of producing coherent thoughts regarding their trauma story. 

Who it’s not for

Traumatic grief therapy is not for people suffering from normal grief reactions associated with mourning. A grieving individual will suffer through their loss for a few months and up to one year after the death or significant loss.

Grief reactions sustained during the first year of mourning will generally follow a pattern of grief that goes through five or more different stages. Coping with loss during this time might seem unbearable.

Still, it may also be typical depending on the circumstances surrounding the death, the bereaved person's past experiences, and the relationship to the deceased.

If grief symptoms last longer than twelve months or a person's having a challenging time coping, consider having a professional grief therapist monitor their progress to rule out signs of complicated grief. 

Treating the Effects of Trauma

The links between grief and trauma have made way for traumatic grief’s inclusion in the way therapists treat survivors of unexpected and life-impacting events. Treatment styles vary from that of ordinary despair and align more with treatments for PTSD.

As therapists learn more about how trauma survivors and their experiences affect their suffering, treatment techniques will evolve to suit their specific needs better.

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