What Is Traumatic Grief?

Published April 23, 2020
Woman Mourning at Graveyard

Traumatic grief can occur when an individual loses a loved one in a way that feels traumatizing to them. This may include experiencing a loss that is sudden, under violent circumstances, and due to devastating natural disasters. This can impact the bereaved's ability to recover and fully process the grief they are experiencing because the loss feels too excruciatingly painful to address.

Traumatic Grief Explained

While traumatic grief can apply to losses that are intense, violent, and unexpected, children, teens, and adults can experience this type of loss if their interpretation of the passing felt traumatizing to them. In this sense, any loss regardless of the circumstances, has the potential to be considered traumatic by the individual grieving.

Examples of Traumatic Loss

While traumatic loss is subject to each individual's interpretation, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual (DSM V) notes that trauma is defined as, "actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence." While the DSM's notion of trauma can be applied to traumatic grief, it's important to remember that what is classified as trauma is a completely subjective experience that is digested uniquely by every individual. Some examples of traumatic loss may include:

  • Losing a loved in a violent way
  • Having a loved one go missing without a trace
  • Having a loved one die suddenly without warning
  • Having a loved one pass away in an accident
  • A child losing a parent or both caregivers suddenly
  • Surviving a mass shooting, but having close friends and/or family members pass away
  • Having loved ones pass during a natural disaster
  • Losing an infant or child
  • Losing some or all family members in an accident such as a fire, car crash, or plane crash
  • Losing a loved one to gang related violence
  • Having a loved one murdered
  • Having a stillbirth
  • Losing a loved one in a mass murder
Depressed mature man sitting on couch

Symptoms of Traumatic Grief

Often, with traumatic grief, those who are in mourning may experience a lot of heartbreaking open-ended questions that feel as if they are constantly running through their mind. This may lead to feeling as if you're going crazy, feeling an intense lack of closure, and experiencing hopelessness. Experiencing traumatic grief can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, obsessive/compulsive disorders, addictive disorders, persistent complex bereavement disorder, as well as dissociative disorders. Keep in mind that traumatic grief is distinct from other mental health disorders, and is not considered a diagnosis currently. Other symptoms may include:

  • Withdrawing socially/isolating
  • Having pervasive negative thoughts about yourself
  • Having self-harming thoughts
  • Feeling nervous about your own survival and believing that the world is unfair and unjust
  • Experiencing survivor's guilt
  • Intrusive and/or obsessive thoughts about the deceased individual(s)
  • Experiencing anhedonia
  • Actively avoiding triggers that remind you of the deceased individual(s)
  • Experiencing intense shock and denial
  • Forgetting that the person is really gone
  • Wanting to reconnect with the deceased, hearing their voice, seeing them

Children and Teen's Traumatic Grief Symptom Presentation

Children and teens may experience symptoms of traumatic grief without anyone passing away. Because the brain isn't fully developed until around the age of 25, any sort of significant and painful life-altering shifts may more easily trigger symptoms of traumatic grief. Examples of big changes may include:

  • A sibling or parent being diagnosed with a terminal illness
  • A parent being deported (traumatic separation)
  • Ending up in foster care

Children and teens may not experience the same symptoms as adults, although some may overlap. Without having a full grasp on what is going on, a child or teen may act out with behavioral misconduct, experience parental or caregiver separation anxiety, and regress emotionally and/or behaviorally. They may also withdraw, experience symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and obsessive disorders, as well as have emotional outbursts, and attempt to use drugs/alcohol to reduce their symptoms.

Experiencing Traumatic Grief

Anyone can experience traumatic grief as long as the concept of death or loss is understood. Often with traumatic grief there are components of uncertainty that make the processing of the loss that much harder. This can include:

  • Having limited information about the death
  • Not knowing how the individual died
  • Not knowing how your loved one felt when they died
  • Feeling a sadness for them passing away too early and wondering what they would have been like
  • Having a hard time knowing what your life will look like without them
  • Feeling overwhelmed with the thought of having to process this immense loss
  • Not knowing what your own future holds

What Factors Impact Who May Experience Traumatic Grief?

The way one internalizes and digests information can have a significant impact on how their unique grieving process unfolds. Other factors that impact how intense and how long the traumatic grieving process may last include:

  • An individual's temperament can influence the way grief is internalized and processed and can impact whether certain types of losses feel traumatic and to what degree of intensity
  • An individual's internal coping resources and how developed these skills are
  • An individual's level of insight and how well they are able to process emotionally challenging information
  • The relationship with the deceased and how much the bereaved individual depended on them- this can especially apply to children and teens

What Happens in the Brain When Trauma Is Experienced?

When trauma is experienced, the brain, in a way to protect itself splits apart the traumatic memory and stores it differently than it would a typical or mundane memory such as what you ate for breakfast. While this is helpful in the moment, it can cause a slew of problems later on as the individual may encounter issues fully processing their grief and eventually healing. This split apart memory may be filled with triggers that are mostly available on an unconscious level, thus leading the individual to experience seemingly random triggers without being able to fully connect to their origin.

Grieving girl on sofa

Interventions for Traumatic Grief

According to the American Psychological Association, traumatic grief is not a primary diagnosis given if you see a mental health clinician. However, due to traumatic grief, you may be experiencing symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, an anxiety disorder, a depressive disorder, and/or persistent bereavement disorder among other possible diagnoses. An estimated 10 to 15% of those who have experienced a loss have symptoms of prolonged or chronic grief and those who experienced a loss in a traumatic way have even higher rates of difficulty processing their grief fully and healing. Children and teens who are experiencing symptoms related to traumatic grief, whether or not they have lost someone, can still use traumatic grief interventions specifically for their age group. Some treatments include:

  • Eye Movement and Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a type of trauma therapy that aims to assist the client in reprocessing traumatic memories and storing them appropriately in an attempt to reduce painful symptoms. This treatment may be appropriate for children, teens, and adults.
  • Trauma Focused Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is a research backed treatment modality that aims to help you in processing trauma centered material, as well as identifying pervasive negative thoughts. This treatment can be appropriate for children, teens and adults.
  • Support groups can be immensely helpful, especially if you are feeling isolated and like you don't have others around who fully understand your traumatic experience.
  • Literature about traumatic loss can help you feel less alone in what you are processing and gives you a look into others' experience of traumatic grief.
  • Finding meaningful ways to honor the one you lost can help you begin the process of seeking closure.

In a school based setting, help the child identify their trauma related triggers. Attempt to eliminate these triggers, or help the child cope with them. For example, if a teacher does an activity that the child used to do with their deceased loved one, if possible, the activity can be changed, or the child can be provided with extra support during the activity, or opt to do another subject-related activity option. Teachers and other administrators' flexibility during a child or teen's grief processing period can make a huge difference when it comes to the child or teen healing and feeling supported during this painful time.

Taking Care of Yourself

If you or your child are exhibiting symptoms of traumatic grief, it's important to find helpful resources as soon as possible. Because traumatic grief can be more difficult to process, be patient with yourself and/or your child during this time and know that there is no set amount of time for the grieving period. You and your child deserve to have as much time as needed to heal from this immense loss.

What Is Traumatic Grief?