woman with red roses and coffin at funeral

Grieving After a Traumatic Loss

The grief process can prove challenging even under the most ideal of situations. Suggesting that there can be more ideal situations in which to grieve may seem oxymoronic but there are circumstances when the bereavement process is more manageable and less emotionally challenging. For example, when a parent dies a peaceful death at an old age surviving children will still face the need to grieve. However, a death under these circumstances is not apt to be experienced as traumatic loss. On the other hand, there are situations in which a person dies that result in loved ones experiencing traumatic grief. As a consequence, a person needs to have a basic understanding of grieving after traumatic loss and of how to manage this type of bereavement process.

Definition of Traumatic Loss or Grief

Traumatic loss or traumatic grief is defined as an “extreme, unhealthy reaction to the death of a loved one” (or some other type of major loss in life). As will be discussed shortly, traumatic grief is markedly different than the grief, mourning, or bereavement process typically experienced after the death of a loved one or some other type of major life loss.

There is one caveat that must be noted here and is discussed a bit more shortly: there is no such thing as a “typical way to grieve.” The grief or bereavement process is unique to each individual. No person grieves in the same manner or in the same timeframe as another. Nonetheless, there are some experiences associated with grieving that are more typical and commonly experiences by people working through a loss in their own way and at their own speed.

What Types of Death can Result in the Experience of Traumatic Loss?

Before diving down into grieving after traumatic loss, an initial discussion of what constitutes traumatic loss itself is necessary. Traumatic loss can exist after a number of life situations; however, traumatic loss most commonly is associated with the death of a loved one under certain particularly distressing or shocking circumstances. 

Prime examples of deaths that oftentimes result in traumatic grief include

  • Untimely death, like the death of a child
  • Death involving violence
  • Death resulting in damage to a loved one’s body, like an undiscovered death
  • Death for which grieving survivor views as preventable
  • Death in which a loved one likely suffered
  • Death viewed as unjust or unfair

Broadly speaking, there are several broad categories of death that many times result in surviving loved ones enduring traumatic grief. These are:

  • Homicide
  • Suicide
  • Unattended death or undiscovered death
  • Accidental death
  • Untimely death by disease or illness

Symptoms of Traumatic Grief

According to the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, losing a loved one is not only one of the most common of life’s experiences but it is also one of (if not the most) distressing. Most people experience what the Mayo Clinic broadly calls “normal grief and bereavement” when a loved one dies. “Normal” is not meant to connote that all people experience the same grief or bereavement process. Rather, “normal” means that people face a range of emotions experienced uniquely to their individual situations. Most individuals who lose a loved one experience a period of sorrow that may also include some level of guilt or anger. There may be a sense of numbness.

When grieving is in the clinically “normal” range, these different emotions ease over time. Keep in mind that the time period in which this easing will differ from one person to another, and sometimes significantly so. However, the intensity of these emotions does lessen over time and a person is able to work through a healthy bereavement process to reach a point at which he or she is able to “move on,” accept the loss of a loved one, and resume life.

This type of easing of emotions and resumption of life is not easily in the offing when a person faces traumatic grief. At its essence, traumatic grief exists when an individual ends up incapable of working through a bereavement process following the death of a loved one. Moreover, a person laboring under traumatic grief experiences extreme emotions far beyond what is considered within the typical bereavement range, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Symptoms commonly associated with traumatic grief include:

  • Intense sorrow over loss of a loved one
  • Focus on little more than a loved one’s death
  • Extreme focus on reminders of a loved one
  • Excessive avoidance of reminders a loved one
  • Intense and persistent longing for deceased loved one
  • Problems accepting death of loved one
  • Prolonged sense of numbness
  • Worldly detachment
  • Bitterness about loss
  • Feeling life holds no meaning since death of loved one
  • Lack of trust in others
  • Inability to enjoy life

In addition to these symptoms, traumatic grief ultimately impacts a person’s ability to carry out routine activities of daily living. Common ways in which traumatic grief impacts a person’s “ability to live” include:

  • Difficulty carrying out simpler, normal routines
  • Isolate from others
  • Withdraw from social activities
  • Experience depression, sometimes profound depression deep
  • Experience significant guilt or self-blame
  • Unreasonable belief that survivor could have or should have prevented death
  • Unreasonable belief that survivor somehow contributed to death
  • Feel life isn’t worth living without deceased loved one
  • Desire to have died along with deceased loved one

The Need for Professional Assistance

Because of the profound, persistent, and pervasive nature of traumatic grief, professional assistance in the form of a grief therapist typically is recommended. This can come in the form of individual or group grief therapy, or even both modalities.

When a person has a loved one who experiences a traumatic death – like a suicide or homicide – a proactive stance in regard to professional assistance is also recommended in many instances. The reality is that losing a loved one by a death resulting from something particularly distressing like suicide or homicide can cause a bereavement process to quickly evolve into a situation involving traumatic grief. Through proactive professional intervention, the possibility of a establishing a course of health grief and bereavement is enhanced.