Untangling trauma and grief after loss

Feb 28, 2022 | General Mental Health

Death, loss and grief are natural parts of life. But when death arrives suddenly and unexpectedly, such as with suicide or a car accident, the overlap of the traumatic experience and the grief of the loss can overwhelm us. 

Glenda Dickonson, a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Maryland, describes traumatic grief as “a sense-losing event — a free fall into a chasm of despair.” As she explains, the experience of having their everyday lives ripped apart by a sudden and unexpected death can cause people to go into a steep decline. “They are down there swirling,” she says, “experiencing all the issues that are part of grief — shock, disbelief, bewilderment.” 

In some cases, people get stuck in their grief and can’t seem to find a way forward. And in certain instances — such as when someone loses their child — individuals may not even want to get out of that state because, for them, it creates a sense of leaving their loved one behind and moving on, adds Dickonson, a member of the American Counseling Association. 

Elyssa Rookey, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) at New Moon Counseling in Charleston, South Carolina, worked with a client who had experienced two traumatic losses. When the client was 15, his stepfather died from suicide, and when the client was 20, his mother died on impact in a car accident. After the death of his mother, the client started having nightmares and became anxious about the possibility of losing other loved ones in his life. 

Rookey noticed that the client used “I” statements frequently in sessions: “I should have done more to help them. I shouldn’t have said that before she left.” The client blamed himself for their deaths and thought that he was cursed, says Rookey, who specializes in treating trauma, grief and traumatic grief. 

His mother’s death also triggered the client’s feelings of abandonment in connection with his biological father, who had left him when he was a child. At times, the client wanted to avoid others and be alone, but that subsequently increased his feelings of isolation and fear of additional loss. He also hosted feelings of anger about having to “grow up” and assume adult responsibilities, such as paying a mortgage and keeping a piece of property maintained, before he was ready. In many ways, Rookey says, he was “stuck” in the trauma and avoiding the feelings of grief and loss. 

Identifying traumatic grief 

Not every sudden or catastrophic loss results in traumatic grief. Some people experience uncomplicated bereavement. But others may show signs of both trauma and grief. They might avoid talking about the person they lost altogether, or they might become fixated on the way their loved one died.  

Because of the trauma embedded within the grief, it can be challenging to differentiate between posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), grief and traumatic grief. “PTSD is about fear, and grief is about loss. Traumatic grief will have both, and it includes a sense of powerlessness,” Dickonson explains. “A person who is experiencing traumatic grief becomes a victim — a victim of the trauma in addition to the loss. … They will assume those qualities of experiencing trauma even while grieving the loss.” She finds that people who have traumatic grief tend to talk about experiencing physical pains, have trouble sleeping and are anxious.

Distressing thoughts or dreams

People experiencing traumatic grief could have distressing thoughts or dreams, hyperarousal or anhedonia/numbness, says Nichole Oliver, an LPC in private practice at Integrative NeuroCounseling in Chesterfield, Missouri. She notes that some of the symptoms can be confused with other mental health issues. For example, a person going through traumatic grief may have a loss of appetite and trouble sleeping (which can resemble signs of depression) or have great difficulty focusing (which can look like a sign of attention-deficit disorder). 

On its website, the Trauma Survivors Network lists common symptoms of traumatic grief, which include: 

  • Being preoccupied with the deceased
  • Experiencing pain in the same area as the deceased
  • Having upsetting memories
  • Feeling that life is empty
  • Longing for the person
  • Hearing the voice of the person who died or “seeing” the person
  • Being drawn to places and things associated with the deceased
  • Experiencing disbelief or anger about the death
  • Thinking it is unfair to live when this person died
  • Feeling stunned or dazed
  • Being envious of others
  • Feeling lonely most of the time
  • Having difficulty caring about or trusting others 

Rookey, who also works for the South Carolina Department of Mental Health in partnership with the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, always screens for trauma because clients may have underlying issues that affect or complicate their grief. When working as a counselor in Miami, she noticed that some adolescents who were court referred for their substance use had also experienced traumatic loss (having a friend who was shot and killed, for example). In these cases, counseling sessions focused on grief, PTSD and anxiety in addition to the issue of substance use, she notes. 

Source: Counceling Today

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