When someone close to us dies, the normal experience of grief is a deep sadness, a yearning for the deceased, often loneliness and a need to reach out for comfort. There may be initial shock and an inability to comprehend the reality of the loss, raw anguish, and perhaps anger, at being left behind, or an irrational guilt about being alive instead. Over time, the pain lessens and the sense of loss fades into a realistic acceptance that life has to go on.
A person suffering from traumatic grief will experience much of this as well. This type of grief can occur when the death has been outside normal human experience, horrific to the person experiencing the loss, particularly if witnessed directly. The unexpected, sudden loss of a child or any close relative or friend because of an event such as sudden illness, a shocking accident, suicide or murder, whether directly experienced or not, can result in traumatic grief, a grief compounded by a post-traumatic stress condition (PTSD). In addition to a normal grief response, the person can feel prolonged numbness, disbelief, a loss of trust in people and hopelessness about the future. These states can last for many years. Many of the symptoms associated with PTSD may appear: hypervigilance; depressed mood; problems controlling emotions; distressing flashbacks; and difficulties in interpersonal relationships. They last for more than 2 months after the death. Left untreated and unrecognized, traumatic grief can have profound and lasting negative effects on the lives of sufferers and their relationships.
Thoughts and reactions around the loss vary in intensity and type from person to person, but may include:
- Frequent irritability
- Sudden bouts of explosive anger and bitterness
- Insomnia and nightmares
- Strong feelings of survivor guilt or distress at not being able to have closure with the deceased
- A loss of any certainty they may have had about life and the future
- Intrusive, distressing thoughts about the death
- Avoidance of social situations
- A strong desire to be reunited with the deceased, suicidal ideation
- Alcohol or other drug addictions to blot out the pain
- Depression and/or anxiety
- Phobias around the circumstances in which their loved one died, such as fear of flying if the death involved an air crash.
Treatment does not seek to erase memories of the loved person, but to help fade the distressing symptoms, over time, of the symptoms disrupting the client’s life and relationships. A skilled therapist assists in ‘fading’ the symptoms into emotions closer to the normal sadness everyone feels when someone close to us passes away. Perhaps the pain of the traumatic loss never completely goes away, but it can becomes less intense over time.
A searing account of traumatic bereavement is Jayne Newling’s ‘Missing Christopher’ (Allen &Unwin) about the suicide of her teenage son. His father, mother and surviving brothers may never completely recover, but therapy, their love for each other helped them all. Jayne’s recording, in writing, her anguished thoughts, as well as healing time alone in a beautiful, quiet environment away from the city, led Jayne to a place of coping and an ability to re-engage with her surviving sons and her marriage.
Susanne Gilmour, Psychologist