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Grief and Bereavement Part 3: Traumatic Grief and Unexpected Loss

In the blink of an eye, your entire world turns upside down. Everything you thought you knew is in disarray and you feel like you’ve lost control over your entire reality. Shock, immense sadness, and disbelief are only some of the many emotional responses you may be experiencing following the traumatic loss of a loved one.

You replay the same questions over and over in your head. “How could this happen?”. “Why did this happen?”. “What could I have done to change this or stop this from happening?”. With all the scenarios flooding through your mind at once, you can’t seem to find an answer that makes sense.

Throughout this article, we will be discussing what traumatic grief is, how it differs from other forms of grief, and how you can process your grief in a way that is valuable and meaningful for you. Taking a closer look at the unique challenges of traumatic loss can help you navigate the bereavement process to get you on the path to healing.

What is Traumatic Grief and Bereavement?

Traumatic loss is a devastating experience. Losing a loved one suddenly often leaves survivors and families feeling overwhelmed, their lives fundamentally changed in an instant. With this, you will experience something known as traumatic grief and bereavement.

A 2015 study on traumatic bereavement describes this type of loss as significantly more intense and prolonged than those following a natural, or anticipated death. A death is considered to be traumatic if it happens without any sort of warning. This research has found that the majority of the symptoms experienced with traumatic grief are often quite pervasive, causing loved ones to experience immense difficulty accepting the circumstances of their loss.

While nothing and no one can prepare for the emotions that follow, there are several symptoms that are commonly experienced following the traumatic loss of a loved one.

1. Intrusive thoughts and memories about death

From the moment to the months following a sudden death, it’s common to have intrusive thoughts expressed through nightmares, guilt, or even self-blame. You may ruminate over this day countless times, each time bringing back a more horrifying memory of their death. This is especially the case if you’ve witnessed this unexpected death firsthand.

2. Separation distress

Another common symptom of traumatic loss is the distress experienced from a loved one’s absence. When someone is taken from your life without any warning, you may express symptoms of yearning and loneliness. When nothing can fill this void, distress can seep in.

3. Avoidance and numbing

Due to the traumatic nature of this loss, a common symptom is to avoid or numb your emotions entirely. This can happen by consciously resisting any thoughts or avoiding reminders of your loved one’s death. This symptom acts as a sort of bandage. While in the short term you may not feel anything, eventually you will need to process your emotions in a healthy and productive manner.

4. Physical and emotional arousal symptoms

Lastly, we have physical and emotional symptoms of arousal. When the avoidance and numbing have run their course, you may go through a period of extreme arousal. Some of these symptoms include irritability, anger, insomnia, decreased concentration, stomachaches, headaches, heightened vigilances, and even fears of your own safety.

Factors that Contribute to Traumatic Grief

Unfortunately, traumatic grief is an unavoidable outcome of the sudden loss of a loved one. Causes of this death can include acts of violence (i.e. homicide), motor vehicle accidents, industrial accidents, natural disasters, sudden illnesses, suicide, or overdose.

While no one processes grief in the same way, several factors contribute to traumatic grief and bereavement. One of which is the ambiguity or uncertainty of a loss such as with a missing person, prolonged legal proceedings, or prior history of trauma. This can impact the course of your grieving process, making it extremely difficult to cope with the loss when there are little-to-no answers given.

Another contributing factor to grief is your initial reaction to the trauma. It’s important to note that many of these responses to traumatic loss are not only normal, but they are socially acceptable, psychologically effective, and self-limited.

Some common responses include:

  • exhaustion
  • confusion
  • sadness
  • anxiety
  • agitation
  • numbness
  • dissociation
  • confusion
  • physical arousal
  • blunted affect

Unique Impacts and Challenges of Traumatic Loss

Traumatic loss is quite different from that of an anticipated or expected loss. When a loved one is given a diagnosis for a terminal illness, you have time to prepare yourself for the grief of their loss. Although this expected loss is nothing short of devastating, traumatic loss involves a more pervasive and long-term grieving process.

In more severe cases, you may experience a significant impact on your mental health such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This can be the case for those who witnessed the traumatic death of a loved one, leaving them to recover from both mental illness and grief which can add even greater complexities.

Healing Traumatic Grief

As time passes, you will be ready to begin processing your emotions. It’s important to note that it is normal to lack any timeline for this sort of healing to take place. Research has found a comprehensive treatment approach to be effective in managing symptoms and of traumatic grief. Based on the research of traumatic bereavement developed from survivors of sudden loss, this approach involves three components.

1. Building Resources

As someone who has been devastated by a traumatic loss, building internal and interpersonal resources are both incredibly valuable. These resources include coping skills, social support networks, and so on.

2. Processing Trauma

The journey towards processing your trauma can be a winding path. It’s important to work through this process both cognitively and emotionally in order to reach a form of acceptance.

3. Facilitating Mourning

Lastly, allowing your mourning to take place can help you to process your loss on a deeper level. Facilitating your mourning includes recognizing that the loss happened, reacting to the separation, letting go of any resentment, adapting to the new norm of daily life, and opening yourself up to new activities and relationships that bring you joy and value.

Counselling Can Help You Take Your Next Step

At the end of the day, you never have to face the physical, mental, or emotional hardships of your trauma alone. Oftentimes, therapy can be a helpful tool to allow you to process the many painful emotions you’re facing.

Traumatic grief therapy is a type of counselling that addresses both your trauma response (i.e. PTSD) and the grief associated with your loss. The goal is to help you work through your trauma and facilitate your mourning, as described above. Therapy can help guide emotional regulation practices, reduce your symptoms of trauma, teach skills to cope and manage trauma more productively, and so much more.

At On Your Mind Counselling, our counsellors have dedicated years in the area of grief and bereavement. We understand the complexities of traumatic grief and the unique nature of processing such a devastating trauma. When you’re ready, we would love to hear from you. Start your healing journey today by booking a free consultation.

Written by Laura Anderson BA, MA, MSW, RSW

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