What About Grief Can Be Traumatic?

We’ve all experienced a level of grief at some point in our lives.  Unfortunately, some of us more than others and some of us more intensely than others.  10 percent of grievers can develop a level of traumatic grief, which is a more prolonged and complicated version of appropriate grief.  Grief is a healthy and normal part of life, even though it can be very painful in the moment.  However, when grief lasts more than six months and becomes more consuming, you may be experiencing traumatic grief.

Traumatic grief includes continued feelings of yearning for the dead and an anger over the sense of the loss.  Often traumatic grief can stem from the sudden and unpredicted death of someone very close to you.  When this occurs, the mourner can feel like they were not prepared for the death of their loved one and become angry for the event occurring.  A consistent yearning can develop in the sense that the surviving members do not move on from the person’s death in an appropriate time.  Keeping bedrooms and belongings as they were prior to the person’s death, memorializing their property or image, and daily reviewing photos or videos of the deceased can occur to maintain traumatic grief.  This consistent yearning for and holding onto the deceased person can generate a feeling of remaining stuck for the surviving members as well.  It can begin to seem like time is standing still or not progressing appropriately.  Often the surviving members who experience traumatic grief can put their own lives on hold during the time period that they continue to mourn the lost individual.

Guilt can be another prominent and intense symptom experienced by the survivor experiencing traumatic grief.  Guilt can become a rabbit hole that our minds can easily fall into all day, every day.  That is, unless we intentionally stop it from doing so.  People who experience a level of traumatic grief can frequently have thoughts that they “should have done more or something differently,” “I deserved this more than they did,” or “things would have turned out differently if only…”.  Survivor’s guilt can also be a very significant struggle.  The problem with guilt stemming out of traumatic grief is that nothing will change because of this thought process.  Individuals who mentally go down these rabbit holes will never feel better about the situation and it obviously won’t bring the individual back.  Some survivors believe that they deserve to suffer with this level of guilt because of what has happened to the deceased person and therefore, in a sense, allow this process to continue. 

So what can be done?  Because the truth is that no one deserves to suffer with traumatic grief.  It might be useful to ask yourself if the deceased loved one would want you to be suffering in this fashion.  Likely the answer would be no and that they would want you to treat these symptoms and continue to live a meaningful life.  In regards to treatment, it can be difficult for antidepressant medications to relieve symptoms of traumatic grief.  Exposure therapy and/or cognitive behavioral therapy are more productive and can achieve more long-lasting results.  The goal of treatment is to encourage people to confront all of the symptoms identified in this blog and resolve any lingering attachment to the deceased.  This does not mean that therapy will help you to forget your loved one, which should never be the goal.  The goal of treatment is to address and confront the self-destructive components of traumatic grief and honor the memory of your loved one in a healthy and appropriate way.  Reframing the way you remember the deceased person can allow you to then remember the relationship you had with them in a more positive way.  Doing so can assist you to move on with your own life, in the way they would likely have wanted you to.

Authored by:  Kaitlan Gibbons, PsyD