Grieving a Traumatic Loss

On October 5, 2012 I appeared on the Blogtalk radio show "Think Zink" with Sarah Zink where we discussed grieving when the loss you suffered was traumatic as a part of our series called "The Kaleidoscope of Grief." These are some notes from our discussion (with added explanations and examples). I've also embedded a link to the show, which is also available for download from iTunes. Grief becomes even more difficult and complicated when the death was traumatic because when you have a traumatic loss you are not only grieving that loss, you are also suffering a trauma.  So, in essence, you have not just one problem (grief) you have two different and separate problems (grief AND trauma).

If you've read my other work or heard me talk about grief, I don't ever refer to it as a problem and I don't believe that it is (although sometimes it may be annoying when you have other things to do - I will grant you that).  Grief is a normal, natural, appropriate response to losing someone we loved.  I only refer to it as a problem when talking about trauma to make the distinction because people who have suffered a trauma as a result of the death they are coping with are often confused by the severity of their pain and the overwhelming and devastating symptoms.  Yes, grief hurts, but those symptoms and that searing pain is most likely a traumatic response and not simply grief.

Trauma impacts the brain in many ways.  For instance, the emotional centers become highly activated, hormones activate the fight or flight mechanisms, speech shuts down (that's why it's so hard to talk about what's happened or describe what you're going through) and the left hemisphere almost becomes completely inactive all of these things are in the service of saving you.  This is all normal and quite fantastic if you're being attacked by a bear.  This is what you want to happen so you can fight it or run like hell.  But when you're surviving someone who has traumatically died, all this is happening, but there is no predator - no healthy coping - no resolution - you're powerless, helpless.  So, there is this flood of all these stress hormones and with no where to go, ie no bear to fight it's like it just becomes toxic to our system.  That's when symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can kick in because there was nothing you could have done - nothing to do.  And you suffer.

So now the symptoms of PTSD make sense because of everything that happened previously in the brain as a response to the trauma.  Here are a few: intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, numbing, distressing dreams, numbing, detached,  can't concentrate, difficulty falling and staying asleep.

Examples of traumatic deaths:  any violent death including accidents, suicide, homicides; sudden deaths, multiple deaths, death of children (including stillbirths and miscarriages), death of parents of young children, deaths with difficulties at the end or a lot of pain at the end of life.  **Any death that was traumatic for you is a traumatic death.

PTSD isn't the only option though.  We are resilient beings and there is another way.  It's called posttraumatic growth.  Posttraumatic growth is a term coined by researchers Tedeschi and Calhoun (one of my undergrad psychology professors!) which is "positive change that the individual experiences as a result of the struggle with a traumatic event (p.11)."  I'm not suggesting that this is easy or done immediately (thus the word "struggle").  It is also not suggesting that in any way the traumatic loss and situation was a "gift" or contained a "gift."  Absolutely not.  In some cases, posttraumatic growth might not ever be possible and that is okay.  But, for me, for the person I want to be, no matter what happens, no matter what darkness comes my way, I want to the strength to reach for posttraumatic growth.

I recommend counseling if you have experiencing grief from a traumatic death.  Look for a counselor who is a trained grief counselor or who is experience in working with clients who have trauma.  There are therapies such as EMDR, Expressive Art Therapy and Sandplay Therapy that have been shown to be very effective in reducing trauma symptoms.  Do research and look for certifications and credentials.

Listen to internet radio with Sarah Zink on Blog Talk Radio


  1. Badenoch, B. (2008).  Being a Brain Wise Therapist.  New York:  Norton.
  2. Calhoun, L. G. & Tedeschi, R. G. (1999).  Facilitating Posttraumatic Growth:  A Clinician's Guide.  New Jersey:  Lawrence Erlbaum
  3. Driscoll, R. "The New Neuroscience:  Implications for Sandplay Therapy."  Sandplay Therapy Institute. Bloomington, Minnesota. 10 Mar. 2010