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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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, www.tmc.edu/news/2019/08/five-questions-for-julie-kaplow-ph-d-director-of-the-texas-childrens-hospital-trauma-and-grief-center/
- “Traumatic Loss and Grief.” Metropolitan Community College, mcckc.edu/counseling/grief-loss/traumatic.aspx
- Rosner, Rita; Pfoh, Gabriele: Kotoučová, Michaela. “Treatment of Complicated Grief.” US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, November 14, 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3402114/#!po=75.0000