What’s Traumatic Grief? Definition & Examples

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Grief is a personal experience, often filled with emotional ups and downs. When a loss is shocking or unexpected, you may go through what is called traumatic grief.

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Not everyone reacts to a significant loss in the same way, so a traumatic response doesn’t always happen. But trauma should not be ignored or left to fester on its own. When it becomes entangled with painful grief, you may not know how to separate the two.

If you’ve felt traumatic grief after a sudden or shocking loss, you're not alone. Get a better understanding of traumatic grief by learning what it is, what it looks like, and how to get through it.

What is Traumatic Grief? 

You can experience traumatic grief if you lose a loved one suddenly or in a shocking way. Not everyone goes through the same grief process, even people grieving the same loss. But the unexpected nature of a loss can make traumatic grief more likely.

Traumatic grief can be triggered by any loss that is:

  • Sudden or unexpected
  • Violent or destructive (catastrophe, accident, suicide, or homicide)
  • Seems random or preventable
  • Involves multiple deaths
  • Involves the griever’s possible brush with death

These circumstances add trauma to the already difficult experience of grief. Both experiences occur at the same time and can be disruptive to your life. Because both issues can be intense, you may find it helpful to get extra support.

Many people find counseling therapy and support groups beneficial. Grief itself is not a disorder, but the trauma that can go with it may often improve only with treatment.

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What’s the Difference Between Normal Grief, Complicated Grief, and Traumatic Grief?

Normal, complicated, and traumatic grief all involve reactions to loss. The main differences tend to stem from both the severity of a person’s symptoms and the circumstances around the loss. With both complicated and traumatic grief, a person has difficulty coping with intense emotions and the impact of their loss. Traumatic grief can be painful because of the disturbing way a person was lost. Here’s a closer look at each type.

Normal grief

Normal or typical grief is a reaction to loss. It’s a mixture of emotional, cognitive, and physical responses to a painful event. A person may always carry some of their grief through their life. But they can resume regular living activities following the initial loss.

Complicated grief

This response is similar to normal grief, but at some point their symptoms become more persistent or intense. Sadness may develop into ongoing bitterness. People suffering with complicated grief may have difficulty accepting reality and are unable to restart regular life activities.  

Traumatic grief

Traumatic grief is a mix of symptoms from different disorders. These include complicated grief, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and major depression. A person tries to cope with grief symptoms and the disturbing nature of the loss.

What’s Childhood Traumatic Grief?

Many children experience grief because of a loss in their life. Most cope and adjust well over time. But some who cope with a traumatic loss struggle deeply and for much longer. Childhood traumatic grief can develop when a child experiences unexpected loss. This can happen with a sudden death, severe injury, or a natural disaster. 

These symptoms can be very distressing. They can make it difficult for a child to do normal daily activities or resolve their grief. Researchers have identified the following five types of symptoms with childhood traumatic grief.

Reexperiencing

Children may reexperience the events surrounding the loss many times. They may have nightmares, intrusive thoughts, and flashbacks. In addition, they can reexperience the sounds and physical sensations from that situation.

Avoidance

Children may avoid places, people, or any reminders of their loss. They may withdraw from activities or people, even ones they enjoy, as they may already be bombarded by unwanted thoughts and memories. So more reminders may only be more upsetting. 

Hyperarousal

Children can become over-aroused by their reactions to the trauma. Their experience may make them oversensitive to sounds, lights, and anything that triggers fear. They may have difficulty sleeping, become irritable, and become overly concerned about safety.

Trouble managing distressing thoughts, emotions, and behaviors

Children are learning how to manage emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in their daily life. Trauma makes it even more difficult for a child to deal with everything all at once. They may cry, become angry, or have trouble making decisions.

Problems with learning and mental processes

With all the memories, stressful thoughts, and strong emotions, a child may struggle to stay focused. They may have trouble keeping track of details or remembering things. This could show up as a drop in grades or lack of interest in school.

How Does Traumatic Grief Work? 

Traumatic grief has several characteristics that set it apart from typical grief. If your grief is related to a sudden or shocking death, you may experience some or most of these issues. These strong reactions are all related to the difficulty you might have in accepting so much change at once. 

Shock and/or disbelief

The feelings of shock and disbelief can be expected when a person dies. But with traumatic grief, you’ll spend more time struggling with this new reality. You may feel like you’re in a dream or that your mind is playing tricks on you.

Everything around you may play out in slow motion or seem frozen. You may not want to eat, sleep, or even move. At some point, you may feel emotionally numb to your surroundings.

Strong yearning for your loved one

You may feel a strong sense of yearning for your loved one during your grief. This is defined as separation distress and can feel intense.

You may feel a growing sense of desperation, knowing your loved one isn’t here anymore. When the yearning feels strongest, you may cry intensely or feel frantic. 

Avoidance of any reminders

When you see a reminder of your loved one, you may react strongly by crying, feeling angry, or feeling more anxious.

These reminders could be family members, your loved one’s home, or gifts they’ve given you. You may be more sensitive to these reminders until the reality of your loss has settled in.

Memories can feel intrusive

You may find yourself overwhelmed with memories of your loved one. It may also seem difficult to turn these memories off, even when they disrupt your sleep or interrupt other activities.

Your memories also carry emotion with them, so you may suddenly find yourself swept up with sadness or longing. 

Preoccupation with the deceased and how they died

Your mind may feel overloaded with thoughts about your loved one. All throughout the day and night, you might ruminate about the last time you saw them and how their death occurred.

You may also worry about what you may have done differently to prevent their death. 

Hyperaware and sensitive 

Your surroundings may seem more irritating and stimulating than usual. Your mind may be sensitive to sounds, sights, and everything else you can typically tune out.

Not only may you be hyperaware, but also you may be more reactive than usual. This high sensitivity can be exhausting after a while, making you wish you could turn off all your senses. 

Feeling a loss of identity

The fear of living without your loved one can feel disorienting and confusing like life has no meaning anymore.

You may feel like a part of you has been ripped away when your loved one died, leaving you with nothing but loss.

Reality feels shattered

With a traumatic loss, your reality can feel shattered. Your foundation of safety, security, and all that you know can turn upside down.

This can make you feel disoriented and doubtful about everything around you. You may feel like a stranger in your home or among your friends and family. You may not trust people like you used to, either. 

Examples of Traumatic Grief Reactions

Traumatic grief can develop in any situation where a sudden or shocking loss happened. When someone gets stuck thinking repeatedly about the situation, the mental rehearsal can be traumatizing. These scenarios can give different insights into the ways you might respond to both grief and trauma at the same time.

1. Homicide  

Homicide is a brutal act, and hearing that a loved one has died this way can be devastating. You may feel a strong sense of yearning for your loved one, missing them deeply.

Your brother had just come home from a late shift at his job when he came upon an intruder in his home. The intruder knocked your brother to the ground and shot him in the head, before escaping. You are devastated over your brother’s death and feel like your heart has been torn from your body. You miss him so much it physically hurts to think about his death. A strong sense of yearning overwhelms you at times. 

2. Accidental death

Accidental death can cause you to preoccupy themselves with why and how the death happened. The griever may worry or feel guilty that they could not prevent the accident. 

You and your sister were wading out into the river near your favorite park. Your sister made a gasp and slipped under the water. She popped up again but got swept away with the current. She was found hours later, having drowned in the swift water. For weeks, you turn over every detail in your mind, thinking of any way you could have saved her. You can’t stop thinking about her death, even when you want to. Your mind is preoccupied with the details of that painful day.

3. Sudden death by natural causes

Sudden death can be hard to accept, no matter who you are. A heart attack or stroke can take a healthy-looking person in a matter of moments, leaving survivors shocked and bewildered.

You and your dad were working in your backyard in the garden together. Suddenly, he collapsed to the ground clutching his chest. Before you could call the paramedics, he was gone. Every day since his death, you have a lot of trouble realizing that he is gone. You feel stunned, like you’re walking in a dream. You are in complete shock over his death.

4. Traumatic event with multiple deaths

A traumatic event with multiple deaths could include any of the previous scenarios. Also, the number of people involved can magnify your reaction. 

Your three best friends all died in a car accident one evening. Weeks later, you feel like you don’t know yourself or your life anymore. You saw your friends every day at school, and now they are gone. You feel so mixed up trying to make sense of each day without them. Every day feels like you’re in someone else’s life. Your reality feels shattered

How Can You Deal With Traumatic Grief?

Traumatic grief is painful and overwhelming. Use the following suggestions to make each day a little easier. 

Get support from people you trust

Your loved ones care about you and understand the pain you're going through. While they can't take your pain away, they can help you remember that you're not alone. Help them understand what you need, whether it is getting together when you feel lonely, doing something fun, or just listening.

You may also find online grief support groups to be helpful. You'll meet people who have been through similar types of loss and trauma. It's a community where you don't have to explain some of the difficult things you go through. Everyone understands the journey you’re on.

Practice self-care

It takes a lot of energy to cope with grief and emotional trauma. You may find yourself feeling more tired than you expect, even if you haven't done much during the day. Prioritize a few basic self-care tasks to help you get through each day.

Keep a regular sleep schedule, and do the best you can to get rest each night. Keep your bedroom cool and free of distractions. You may not always get the rest you want, but these tips can make it easier.

Eat nutritious food

It's OK to have sweets for other comfort food now and then. But your mind and body will function the best with healthy food choices. Stick with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and plenty of water. 

Try not to overdo it

As you learn to live with your grief, you may go through some ups and downs. You may find this happening more as you get back to regular activities. If you feel tired during the day or can't concentrate anymore, it means you need to take a break. Go on a quick walk, try some gentle stretching, or listen to music. Try other things that help you feel settled and relaxed.

Find a counselor

Untreated trauma can interfere with your ability to enjoy and live life. Seeing a counselor who specializes in traumatic grief can help you learn to cope and live with your loss. A grief counselor can help you cope with your symptoms of grief, trauma, and any depression you may have from your loss.

You may be uncertain about opening up to a stranger about your grief. It's understandable, but treatment can help you in ways you can’t do on your own. There are many evidenced-based treatments a counselor can use to help you cope and process your loss.

How Can You Help a Loved One Deal With Traumatic Grief?

Watching a loved one suffer from traumatic grief symptoms can be difficult. You know they’re in emotional pain, and you want to help. Here are some specific ways to support and guide your loved one through traumatic grief. 

Understand that you can't fix their emotional pain 

Your loved one will grieve and suffer because that is a part of their grief process. You can’t take away or fix their pain, but you can be there to comfort them. Create a safe space for them to express whatever they’re feeling, whether it's sadness, anger, or nothing at all. There is no right or wrong emotion, especially with grief.

Help them consider professional counseling 

If your loved one isn't taking care of their basic needs, talk with them and offer help. Also, look into local grief counselors in your area or mention to them that their doctor may be able to help. 

Your loved one may or may not want to talk to someone about their grief. They may feel too sensitive or overwhelmed. But professional help may be needed if they are not doing well on their own. Offer to go with your loved one or help them get an appointment. Be encouraging, but don’t force them to go.

Offer to help in specific ways

It's easy to say, “Let me know if I can help.” But a person in deep grief most likely won't take action and ask for help. They may be too overwhelmed by their grief or may feel guilty reaching out. Instead, offer a few specific tasks that you can do for them. If you aren’t sure what your loved one needs most, ask their friends and family members. 

Keep it simple by offering limited choices. Tell them you'll bring a meal with either chicken or beef. Offer to either mow the lawn or weed the garden. 

Watch for self-harm behaviors

Trauma can be difficult to process, even with professional help. Some people try to manage trauma by shutting down or covering up their emotions. A person may become a workaholic or misuse substances to numb the pain. This may offer short-term relief, but their pain won’t go away. It just gets pushed aside, and will keep showing up until it’s addressed directly. 

Getting Through Traumatic Grief

When you experience typical grief, you can get through it with the help of friends, family, and good self-care. You’ll experience emotional pain and some adjustment, but you’ll likely return to your daily routines after several weeks.

But if it is traumatic grief, you may benefit from extra support and counseling therapy. Untreated trauma can be harmful and isn’t a typical part of the grieving process.

Traumatic grief is emotionally difficult, but you can get through it. Reach out for counseling therapy if your grief is too overwhelming. Take every day a step at a time and keep the support of loved ones around you.

Looking to learn about other types of grief? Read our guides on climate grief and collective grief.


Sources:
  1. Becker, Alexandra. “Five questions for Julie Kaplow, Ph.D., director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Trauma and Grief Center.” Texas Medical Center, August 19, 2019, tmc.edu
  2. Rosner, Rita; Pfoh, Gabriele: Kotoučová, Michaela. “Treatment of Complicated Grief.” US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, November 14, 2011, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  3. Sanghvi, Pia. “Grief in children and adolescents: a review.” Indian Journal of Mental Health, 2020 Volume 7, issue 1, indianmentalhealth.com
  4. Shear, M. Katherine, MD. “Grief and mourning gone awry: pathway and course of complicated grief.” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, June 14, 2012. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  5. Smid, G. E., Kleber, R. J., de la Rie, S. M., Bos, J. B., Gersons, B. P., & Boelen, P. A. “Brief Eclectic Psychotherapy for Traumatic Grief (BEP-TG): toward integrated treatment of symptoms related to traumatic loss.” European Journal of Psychotraumatology, July 6, 2015. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  6. “Traumatic grief.” National Child Traumatic Stress Network, nctsn.org
  7. “Traumatic Loss and Grief.” Metropolitan Community College, mcckc.edu
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