Traumatic Grief. Reading the two words together signals that something terrible happened. They highlight shock and suffering. Something happened to you suddenly, or was stripped away from you tragically. Perhaps someone even betrayed you unexpectedly.
Traumatic grief reveals distressing emotional injury and awful loss.
Now trauma lives in your mind and body along with your sorrow. Your thoughts and emotions can’t help but return to those events. Even sensations within your body hold reminders of what happened. And when you’re not re-experiencing it, your mind and body go numb.
Memories intrude and reoccur. Your body upsets, resets, and reacts. Now, loss is happening again and again inside you. Nightmares haunt your sleep. Each time it’s real to you, and just as raw. Each time you hurt and are held back from the healing you hope for. Somehow, you just can’t get to the hope and help that painful but healthy grief eventually affords.
Why is it so hard?
Because unlike the road traveled by conventional grievers, your unprocessed trauma always takes priority, stifling a healthy journey through loss and acceptance back to your way forward in life.
So, how do you know when to seek help? How long do you grieve before you really know to reach out to a counselor rather than just family or friends? Are there signs you should look for? Are there questions to ask yourself?
Do you recognize these traumatic grief symptoms?
Grief and mourning are normal processes and responses to loss. As such, many find that the support of family, friends, or a non-profit grief group is enough. Even so, seeking extra support through counseling for a safe, confidential environment that’s all yours can aid many grievers.
But, you know it’s time to seek help when you experience these symptoms for more than a couple of months:
- Frequent attempts to avoid any reminder or mention of the event or person,
- A sense that the future is pointless,
- Feeling numb or emotionally detached,
- A persistent sense of being shocked or stunned,
- Difficulty acknowledging and accepting the reality of the person’s death,
- A sense that life is devoid of meaning or purpose,
- Inability to even imagine a return to a full, rewarding life,
- Feeling like part of yourself died, too,
- Disrupted or disturbed sense of security, trust or control,
- Identifying with damaging or harmful behaviors connected to the deceased person,
- Anger, irritability, hostility, or bitterness,
- Self-care seems useless,
- Significant impairment of social, occupational, or other crucial functioning,
- Nightmares or a sense of being disconnected from time.
(Of course, if you experience thoughts about self-harm or suicide, call 911, a 1-800 crises line, a counselor, family member, friend, pastor, or doctor.)
Do these symptoms seem familiar? Do you get the feeling they are not improving? Are you exhausted because your emotional pain is too difficult to tolerate and you can’t control the thoughts and images in your mind?
The neurobiology of trauma can seriously impair the ability to grieve in a healthful process. This is because trauma is the intrusion of traumatic events into the here and now, through thoughts and physical reactions, as though the events were happening again and again. To help you address your symptoms, you may need a trauma-informed grief counselor or trauma therapist who can help you consider and employ effective strategies for addressing the trauma first. Then they can help you proceed with grief processing afterward.
There is very little you can do to grieve effectively and completely until the traumatic impact to your nervous system is recognized, calmed, and corrected.
Is your brain struggling to recover?
We experience loss in a biological, physical, neurological, and emotional way. Hormones and chemicals are released, normal internal responses are disturbed, and key internal systems go on alert. A traumatic loss—traumatic grief—is intense. And the nervous system directs it all.
Your psychological responses to trauma tax the regions of your brain managing attention and memory. The areas that focus on emotion and relationships are overstimulated. The zones that are dedicated to planning and language are strained. Also, hormones reserved for emergencies pump through you too often. Your “threat assessment” center is in overdrive.
Thus, you likely cannot process your loss because it’s as if your thoughts and emotions are continually stuck on repeat. You are re-experiencing the traumatic events connected to the loss but not the return to calm and progress that eventually follows the grieving process.
“Grief,” for you, becomes a cycle of disproportionate, unrelenting, negative emotions, physical sensations, and thought intrusions. Your mind and body do the best they can. But, it’s rough trying to go on that way without knowledgeable help.
Is your support system supportive enough?
Sometimes, trauma survivors, or those experiencing loss in a dramatic manner, recover on their own. Especially if they have enough trusted friends or family who actively support them and come alongside them to grieve. Sometimes the trauma symptoms that accompany a traumatic loss will abate in a month or two.
But often, the need to discuss the circumstances and heartbreak of your loss repeatedly can prove too much for friends or family. Furthermore, to shore up more support, many find relief in grief support groups or online forums. However, there is much to be said for individual traumatic grief counseling to tease apart what constitutes the symptoms of healthy grief versus symptoms of posttraumatic stress.
If you sense you are not progressing through grief well, an objective perspective is often helpful amid the roiling emotions of your loss. In addition, a professional traumatic grief counselor can help determine whether your thoughts, emotions, and perceptions are grief with its normal stresses and sense of bewilderment, or whether lingering symptoms might indicate traumatic stress.
You’re hurting right now, maybe badly. And learning to live with your loss won’t be easy, and it will take as long as it takes in a process that’s individual to you and the relationship you have with whomever or whatever you lost. But, you can find help and relief if posttraumatic stress is compounding your suffering.