What Is Traumatic Grief?

What Is Traumatic Grief?

by Steph Coelho, medically reviewed by Jacquelyn Johnson, PsyD

Traumatic grief is a form of grief that happens in response to a sudden, unexpected loss.

Grieving is always difficult. And when a loss is sudden, coping in the aftermath can feel impossibly hard.

Everyone grieves at some point in their life, and it affects people in all sorts of ways. When grieving, you may find it difficult to move forward.

But while it can feel tough right now, there are ways to heal and manage the grief you’re feeling.

What is traumatic grief?

Traumatic grief can happen in response to a sudden, unexpected loss.

For example, maybe you lost a child, or experienced the violent death of someone close to you. It might also involve losing your support system.

Traumatic grief is different from the grief that happens from an expected loss, such as when someone passes away after a long chronic illness.

That doesn’t mean that other forms of grief are any less difficult to deal with. In some people, it may even lead to prolonged grief disorder, also called complicated grief.

Traumatic grief is more likely to lead to complicated grief. And the feelings that come with traumatic grief are also much more intense.

“The shock and unexpected nature of the loss can be traumatizing and trigger intrusive, preoccupying thoughts or bodily responses that are essentially distorted survival mechanisms in addition to the mourning of whatever was unexpectedly lost,” says Michael Roeske, PsyD and executive director at Newport Healthcare Connecticut.

Traumatic grief is also related to prolonged grief disorder, says Roeske. Sometimes, people use the terms interchangeably. Prolonged grief disorder involves a deep longing for the lost loved one and constant thoughts about them, which can interfere with your everyday life.

Evidence suggests that people are more likely to develop complicated grief disorder if the circumstances of the loss are traumatic in some way, like an accident or natural disaster. For many people, the loss of a child may be the most traumatic form of family loss.

According to Roeske, finding out about an unexpected death can also cause grief that leads to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition that causes disturbing, intrusive thoughts related to the initiating traumatic event.

Research involving adults who lost someone during 9/11 found that about 43% had what could be categorized as complicated grief with PTSD 3 years after the event.

PTSD relating to grief is also especially likely if you have an existing mental health condition at the time you experience a traumatic loss, adds Roeske.

If you’re living with depression, for example, you may have a more pronounced reaction to a loss.

Symptoms of traumatic grief

We all experience grief differently. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve a loss. But if you’re experiencing traumatic grief, it may look different from other forms of grieving. Symptoms can include:

  • nightmares
  • difficulty sleeping
  • attempts to avoid all thoughts and activities associated with the trauma
  • flashbacks
  • emotional numbness
  • fear
  • anxiety

According to Roeske, people experiencing traumatic grief may also feel angry and that what’s happened is unfair. They may also feel like they have unfinished business or something they need to work on.

The symptoms are more intense, pervasive, and persistent than regular grief. “Those experiencing traumatic grief are also more likely to feel fear for themselves and/or others,” adds Roeske.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), physical symptoms may also include:

  • shakiness or trembling
  • nausea
  • loss of appetite
  • dry mouth
  • problems sleeping
  • trouble breathing
  • muscle weakness

Ways to deal with traumatic grief

People deal with grief in different ways, but some things may be more helpful than others in getting you through this difficult time.

Focus on routine and maintaining structure

“It is best to first stabilize the trauma by focusing on how to regulate emotions and calm the nervous system before trying anything else,” says Roeske.

Soothing the nervous system looks different for everybody, but doing things that you enjoy is a good place to start. For some people, grounding exercises help them feel more connected to their bodies and surroundings.

Following a routine helps people to feel safe and cared for. Keeping regular mealtimes and prioritizing sleep may give you a greater capacity to regulate your emotions throughout the day.

Know that your feelings are not uncommon

Everyone deals with grief at some point and handles it differently. There’s nothing wrong with you if you’re experiencing traumatic grief that’s impacting your usual activities. You just might need extra support.

Acknowledge how you’re feeling

By understanding and identifying traumatic grief, you’re better equipped to deal with and manage those feelings, adds Roeske.

Think about it

Avoid trying to ignore your pain and grief. “Allow yourself to think about what happened instead of numbing or blocking it out,” Roeske says.

Express yourself

If you’re finding it tough to make sense of your feelings, journaling about your grief may help. It may even be a good first step before opening up to others.

Lean on others

Share how you’re feeling with people around you. Some people find it particularly helpful to talk with people who have experienced the same type of loss by joining grief support groups.

If you’re supporting someone who has experienced a sudden loss, try being a good listener. It can help to let the person talk about their loved one and grief.

In a 2021 study on forms of support for traumatic grief, responders commonly said that they appreciated it when people let them mention the name of the person they lost without being made to feel awkward.

Next steps

“Grief is different for every person and every loss. It can last for weeks, months, or even years. This is why working with a mental health professional can be so important and beneficial in healing,” says Roeske.

He recommends seeing a mental health professional if your grief is having a negative impact on your life. If you’re having trouble eating, sleeping, or otherwise taking care of yourself, that’s a sign it’s time to talk with someone about how you’re feeling.

Article originally published on PsychCentral.com