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Understanding and Working through Traumatic Loss

Although there is an element of trauma in almost all kinds of loss, certain deaths are more likely than others to be experienced as traumatic by surviving family members, and to lead to post-traumatic stress symptoms. 

There’s no one set definition of traumatic loss, but it’s generally considered a death that fits one or more of the following criteria:

  • The death occurs without any warning;
  • The death is untimely;
  • The death involved violence and/or was caused by someone with the intent to harm;
  • The death involved damage or mutilation of the loved one’s body;
  • The family believes that the death was preventable;
  • The death involved suffering.

In addition, factors like media attention, uncertainty about whether or not your loved one is alive (for example, if he or she is missing), or being blamed for the death can all increase the likelihood that you’ll experience the death of a loved one as traumatic.

Some common examples of deaths that are considered traumatic are:

  • Suicide;
  • Homicide;
  • Car accidents;
  • Other types of accidents, such as drowning accidents or other freak accidents;
  • Sudden death from heart attack or other acute illness.

Trauma following the death of a loved one is also added to the grief related to that person’s death. In some cases, people without a particularly strong connection to the deceased person might experience profound trauma following his or her death. For example, someone who finds his or her roommate after he or she has committed suicide or someone who survived a car crash that killed his or her commuting buddy might experience many of the symptoms of traumatic loss. In those situations, the trauma is often further complicated by a lack of support and understanding by friends and family.

Professional counseling can help survivors of traumatic loss recover and avoid or mitigate prolonged symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Here are some of the issues that most people who’ve experienced traumatic loss struggle with as they move forward with their lives after loss.

Guilt

People who’ve experienced a traumatic loss often find themselves mentally replaying the events in the moments, days, months or even years before the death occurred, thinking about all the ways that the death could have been prevented. In many traumatic deaths there is a chain of events leading up to the death itself that survivors imagine themselves changing, even if there was no way the death could have been foreseen.

This guilt is especially acute if you feel like there were warning signs that you ignored or other concrete things that you think you could have done to prevent your loved one’s death.

In addition to blaming yourself for failing to prevent your loved one’s death, you might also be experiencing survivors’ guilt, thinking that it “should have been me.”

Guilt is present in almost all grief, but is often stronger and more persistent following a traumatic loss. Working through and moving past guilt is an essential step towards recovering from traumatic loss and finding happiness even after the death of your loved one. Professional counseling can help you explore your feelings of guilt, address your rational and irrational regrets and finally help you let go and forgive yourself.

Fear

In many cases of traumatic loss, an everyday situation like the morning commute or a trip to the swimming pool suddenly became a nightmare. If you’ve seen how the world can go from happy and safe to deadly in an instant, it’s hard to trust that things won’t go wrong again.

Some common examples of fear that can follow traumatic loss include:

  • Extreme anxiety about riding in a car;
  • Problems being around groups of people;
  • Inability or extreme anxiety related to being alone.

The fears and phobias that arise after a traumatic loss can prevent you from living a fulfilling life and can hamper your ability to recover. Fear can make it impossible to do activities that you previously enjoyed.

If you’re experiencing fear and/or anxiety following a traumatic loss, it’s important to work with a professional counselor to help you find ways to address and conquer your fears—or find ways to limit their influence on your life.

I can help you find healthy ways to process the grief and trauma related to your loved one’s death so that you can get back to a life full of activities you enjoy.

Health Problems

Survivors of traumatic loss are even more likely than other grievers to experience physical symptoms in the aftermath of their loved one’s death. These symptoms often include:

  • Sleep disruptions;
  • Changes in appetite;
  • Physical pain, including joint aches and sharp, unexplained pain;
  • Digestive problems, including nausea and vomiting;
  • High blood pressure

In some cases, survivors of a traumatic loss are also recovering from injuries they sustained in the accident or event that led to their loved one’s death.

Addressing the psychological issues and profound grief surrounding traumatic loss with a professional counselor is an essential part of feeling better physically. It can also help disrupt the vicious cycle of poor physical health and/or pain increasing the isolation and depression felt after the loss of a loved one.

Loss of Faith in the World

Between the shock of their loved one’s death, guilt and self-blame surrounding the circumstances and seemingly uncontrollable anxiety, people who have experienced traumatic loss can start feeling like the world is out to get them. This can lead to a pervasive loss of meaning and general loss of interest in life. Rebuilding your faith in the world is the first step towards finding happiness even after trauma.

I work with people who’ve experienced a traumatic loss on an individual basis as well as in my support groups that focus on specific losses (sibling loss, spousal loss).

Individual counseling gives you personalized attention and a safe space to explore everything related to the events preceding your loved one’s death as well as your emotions in the aftermath of his or her death. Working with me gives survivors the opportunity to express thoughts and feelings that they don’t want to voice in other settings, and to put words to emotions that aren’t socially acceptable.

I’ll help you find the best strategies for overcoming your guilt and reducing the frequency of the “replay” of the horrific events that led to your loved one’s death. We’ll work together to find a way to prevent fear from standing in the way of a fulfilling life, even after a traumatic loss.

By working together, I can help you find a path towards happier moments, happier days and a happier life.