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Tragic events can be much more difficult to recover from quickly, or at all, depending on the nature of the tragedy e.g. unnecessary or accidental death, rape, loss through natural disasters, death during war-time, unnecessary acts of violence.

Traumatic grief generally occurs when a death is:

  • Sudden, unexpected - the result of natural causes but without a history of illness.
  • Violent, Mutilating, Destructive - especially when caused by the actions of another person, an accident, suicide, homicide, or other catastrophe.
  • Is viewed as random and/or preventable.
  • Involves multiple deaths.
  • Results in the survivor’s (mourner’s) own personal encounter with death.

The grieving process with traumatic grief is complex and demands even more than a normal response as the survivor struggles to cope with the loss and the aftermath. Traumatic losses are the ones that often require counseling and professional help from those knowledgeable in the field to help the grieving better cope with the loss.

Whenever someone receives news of a sudden and tragic loss the body responds physically and emotionally. Your body goes through automatic changes in order to enable you to cope with the trauma. These responses happen automatically which means that it may feel out of your control, which may be scary if you don't know that it is normal. Some responses last for a short time and others for a longer time. Some occur one at a time and others all at once. 

You are not going crazy. You are in mourning. In a moment your entire life has changed. It will never be the same as it was before this traumatic and sudden loss. So many talk about trying to "get back to normal." You have to accept the fact that you will be living a "new normal". Others around you may want you to get back to the way you used to be. But you have changed. Many things in your life seem different. Some people drop those who are not helpful in their lives, while others expand their circle to include more and more people. You come to appreciate those who remember to let you grieve in your own ways and in your own time without casting judgment. Some friends or loved ones want you to "get over it" and "move on." That feels impossible. Many share that they feel that their legs are lead weights after a sudden loss. They can't move. They have difficulty swallowing. They feel exhausted in a way never imagined. They are grieving. 

8 things to think about immediately following a traumatic loss:Straight line vs squiggly line to get through grief

  • Start gathering your support system around you. You will want to and need to express strong feelings about what happened and how you feel. It isn't healthy to suppress these urges. Having trusted family and friends around who can listen and share memories will be important now.
  • Have a support member start notifying the people who most need to know. It helps to notify those who can easily contact others for you. Some people will need to be notified in person. 
  • Identify those in your support system who will be responsible for protecting your privacy from the media. You will be approached by reporters. Determine how you will deal with their questions. Decide if you will watch the news coverage or not. You may want to record news for a later time.
  • Try to get some rest and think about your own health. Contact a family doctor, grief counselor, or clergy. Get time off from work if possible.
  • You will be easily distracted. Be very careful driving. 
  • Do not try to maintain an appearance of false strength. Be honest with others about your feelings.
  • Know that everyone grieves differently.
  • You will experience physical and emotional symptoms of grief beyond your control.  
  • Try to eat, get rest and even walk a bit if possible. 
  • Don't let people take advantage of you.
  • Make funeral arrangements. Religious observances may need to be communicated to the authorities and those handling the body of your loved one as soon as possible.  Be sensitive to the input of those closest to your loved one when making arrangements, but keep the number of decisions to a minimum.  

Other difficult things you may be called upon to do 

  • Identifying the body will be emotionally difficult. Have someone go with you.
  • If you are a witness, police and others may need to question you.
  • Make priorities for what is most important right now and don't do less important things. 
  • You may need to reclaim personal belongings.

 Dealing with other legal matters related to the death 

  • The funeral director will obtain the death certificate and help you determine how many copies to ask for.
  • If a will exists, locate it immediately.
  • Begin dealing with the associated costs of the death.
  • Begin filing insurance and other related claims.
  • Don't make life-changing decisions right away or without consulting with a trusted person.
  • You may want to consider a memorial gift or request contributions in your loved one's memory. 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder 

Only after a person feels safe and stabilized will a person begin to process his/her experience.  

The following are normal stress reactions and responses to a traumatic event typically lasting 30 days or less. If they continue it is suggested that the person seeks professional help.

  • Hyper-arousal:  hyper-vigilant behavior, heightened startle response, being easily triggered by things that remind person of the trauma, irritability, and repeating behaviors that are associated with the most disturbing aspect of the trauma. Often these behaviors continue even if the person is now safe, but they don't perceive that they are safe yet. 
  • Intrusive thoughts and images:  Often people will share that they feel that they re-experience the event. This reaction is one of the most common with PTSD. The survivor experiences the event over and over again for hours, days and even weeks. Often along with this are sleep disturbances, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, memories or disturbing images of the event.  
  • Shattered assumptions: Often four basic assumptions are shattered: "I am safe", "I am in control", "Bad things happen to others but not to me" and "I am worthy and my life has meaning". Instead survivors may feel they are not safe, they are not in control, and bad things can happen to me. 
  • Numbing and Avoidance: We want to avoid anything that reminds us of the trauma. We may avoid thoughts, emotions, or places connected with the event. We may pull away from people, feel spaced out and forgetful, be depressed or show very little emotion and sometimes even not recognize current threats and risks and wind up in dangerous or engage in risk taking behaviors. 

Symptoms of Traumatic Stress

  • Physical:  fatigue, exhaustion, sleep disturbances, hyper-arousal, appetite changes, digestive issues, headaches, nausea, muscles aches.
  • Emotional: fear and guilt, numbness, anxiety, depression, anger, helplessness, irritability, frustration.
  • Behavioral: withdrawal, outbursts, hyper alert, change in activity, suspicion, startle reaction increases.
  • Cognitive: flashbacks, difficulty with problem solving, change in alertness, amnesia/confusion, decreased concentration, difficulty making decisions, memory disturbances.

Resources

Adapted from What to Do When the Police Leave: A Guide for the First Days of Traumatic Loss by Bill Jenkins and Grief Speaks and Journey of Hearts 

Graphic from: SideOut Foundation .   

Last Modified: 8/15/19