The Extra Support Needs Of Traumatic Grief

Recently two incidents at sea where people were killed have been mentioned in the media. One was the death of 5 people in a submersible craft deep sea diving. The other was around 600 refugees fleeing war and persecution whose boat sank with the loss of around 500 lives.

For the submersible, the media reports stressed that they would have been dead in an instant, not aware that they were dying. No one talked about the slow drowning death of the mainly women and children trapped inside the sinking refugee boat. Their death would have been one they were fully aware was happening.

It was more comforting to think that they people killed in the submersible died quickly, unaware they were dying. It is horrible to think of the refugees and their slow drowning death.

Your Loved One Has Died a Traumatic Death

When your loved one is killed in an accident, murdered, died lost in the bush or desert, suicided, grief becomes complicated by the way they died. You are mourning two things, the loss of their life, and the traumatic way they died. It makes a difference to the way you grieve.

As well as being traumatic, suicide is a unique bereavement so I will address that in another blog post.

How do you cope with knowing your loved one was killed in an accident? Or worse, was killed deliberately? Were they aware they were dying? What was going through their mind? Did they suffer? Were they calling out to you for help or support?

How Society Thinks You Should Grieve

There are many ideas in our society about how you should grieve. Some, particularly if they are based on personal experience, are valid. Others are completely wrong and cause great harm to those who are grieving.

Much of how we grieve is learned from childhood experiences with grief.

Death As An Existential Concept

I am often called to conduct critical incident debriefs. When I talk to people I always seek to find out about their previous experience with grief, and any customs they practice after the death of someone they know. I also seek to identify those for whom the death I am debriefing them over is the first time they have encountered death.

Death is a massive existential concept. It takes a lot to comprehend its meaning and place in our lives. It is the great certainty of life but also the great unknown. It is something we tend to ignore, until we are confronted by it.

I remember my first encounter with a person dying. It was my grandmother and I was 12. I remember asking myself what death was. For me at the time it meant my grandmother would not ring us up anymore. We would never visit her again. I would never be able to learn more from her. She would not be there.

Other people report different meaning making around death.

Always, there needs to be understanding and patience for those who have never encountered death before.

The Meaning of This Death In Your Life

When I work with the first time bereaved, I always try to help them explore the meaning of this death in their life. I also let them know it is okay to have a multitude of feelings. Such as being confused, to feel it is unreal, to feel angry, sad, numb, restless, frightened and so many more things.

One thing I always work to dispel with people is that idea of grief being one of stages. This idea became popular in the early 70s when Elizabeth Kubler-Ross published a book “On Death and Dying”. I remember reading it in the years after my grandmother died. I found it didn’t match my experience at all. When I became a nurse I found it was more applicable for people who were dying than those who were bereaved. I later found out there is a reason for that. The book was aimed at those who were dying, not at those who were bereaved. The book was embraced as being about bereavement and that has been hard to shake.

Since that time there has been much research which has been more applicable for those who are bereaved. None of these research findings list “stages” as being part of the grieving process.

However, the idea of stages still persists. I still have people come to see me who are concerned because they are not following the stages. They have either formed the idea themselves they must follow stages, or they have been told by others they must follow stages.

What Is Known About Grief?

Grief is a total body experience.

We not only emotionally experience grief. It is there in our thoughts, actions, physical sensations as well as emotions. Grief is physically experienced by our brains as neural pathways in the brain are removed and the remnants altered.

As the core of grief is sadness. There is often disbelief, a sense of unreality, anger, fear, brokenness, confusion, hyperactivity, shut down, crying, numbness, guilt, regret, disbelief, lethargy, loss of appetite, feeling overwhelmed, unable to make decisions, and many more. Moods are unstable and change frequently. Any little trigger can throw you back into deep grief.

The intensity of grief will slowly abate. Most people find that after 18 months to 2 years they are feeling their pain less intensely. In the initial stages of grief, it is hard to focus on anything other than the grief. Although you can if they need to, it is often exhausting to do this. Sometime after a few months it becomes easier to put the grief aside to attend to other things.

This is how grief plays out normally.

What happens when the death is traumatic?

Many of the experiences of grief are amplified in traumatic grief. Some of that is due to your body’s defence systems being activated. You may feel combative as your body tries to fight its way out of the situation. Or you may feel agitated and want to run away. This is your body trying to run from a situation it judges you cannot fight. Or you may feel like you are frozen as your brain tells you there is no escaping this terrifying situation.

Traumatic grief leads to more frequent, more intense reactions. Many people report visions of their loved one being hit by a car, stabbed in a fight or whatever caused their death. They may envisage their loved one lost in the bush (if that is how they died), they may experience the horror of imagining their loved one giving up hope of being found alive. All this is heartbreaking.

The pain of losing a loved one in traumatic circumstances is more intense. The idea that someone or something else has caused your loved one’s death adds an extra layer to your grief. The if only’s are very powerful in this type of loss.

Your World View Changes

All grief causes your world view to change. But traumatic grief has a much deeper impact on your world view. The type of traumatic grief will influence the change in your world view. There is a difference to way you will process death due to, for example, a car accident, murder, faulty equipment, and being lost in the bush.

The manner of traumatic death can also impact on the type of support you will receive. One person I saw some years ago lost her son when he was stabbed. She found that people were judgemental about what he was doing out at night in a party area. Did he have a knife too? Was he drunk? Was he looking for trouble? Did he deserve to be grieved if he contributed to his death by being in a party area?

The Blame Game

When a person dies they die. There is no blame. We all make errors of judgement. For your loved one this may have resulted in their death. It doesn’t make you any less deserving of the grief you are experiencing. Nor does it make their loss any less worthwhile.

Another person who came to see me had lost her sister in a car accident. Another driver changed lanes directly into her car and wiped her out. People questioned if it was her driving skills that contributed to her death, this despite the fact the other driver was clearly in the wrong and admitted it.

Fewer People Are Willing To Offer Support

Many of the people I see who lose a loved one traumatically find that they receive less support. Or there is a lack of understanding of the more intense nature of their grief. There is often a lack of support from other people, who will often avoid the grieving person because they don’t know how to respond to their grief.

If you are experiencing traumatic grief, know that your experience is likely to be more intense and last longer. Be gentle with yourself. Don’t push yourself to “get over it” quickly. If you have friends or others in your community who are supportive and seek to understand, keep in touch with them. Avoid the people who are unhelpful. Allow yourself the time you need to heal. If you need it, seek help from a grief counsellor.

Can I Help?

If you would like to talk to me about how I can help you with your traumatic grief, please contact me on 0409396608 or

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