Grief and traumatic life experiences challenge a person's normal coping efforts. Life events that may trigger a sense of grief and loss vary tremendously and may include death or illness of a partner, parent, child or other significant person, loss of a job, a pet, relocation, divorce, loss of relationship or separation.
Traumatic experiences may include such things as sexual and other physical abuse, neglect, peer or family suicide, severe burns, natural disasters, fires, accidents and medical procedures. It can be traumatic for children to witness or experience violent crimes or vehicle accidents such as automobile and plane crashes.
The information that follows is an overview of some of the manifestations and approaches to dealing with grief and trauma. This is by no means a complete reference; a trained professional will be able to address and provide specific techniques for handling grief and trauma not mentioned here.
People's Reactions To Events That Trigger Grief Or Trauma Vary Greatly And There Are No Correct Or Incorrect Responses
Depending on the severity of the loss and scope of the event, feelings of intense sadness, fear, disbelief, and helplessness may occur in the initial days after the incident. Over time they may experience, among other things, feelings of horror, anxiety, depression, and even numbness (lack of feelings).
People may keep reliving images of the events (i.e., have "flashbacks"), have difficulty concentrating, not feel close to loved ones, and experience physical health problems. Feelings of anger, blame and rage may be common, along with feelings of irritability or even violence, which may be inadvertently directed towards others.
Some may try to "calm down" by using alcohol, food, or other substances. Children, like adults, may have difficulty sleeping or nightmares, and may avoid reminders of the events. They also may act out aspects of the events in their play, school, recreational activity, or even being around other people.
There Are No Easy Answers To These Manifestations Of Suffering, But It Can Make A Difference When People Can Help Themselves By Spending Time With Supportive Friends And Family, Sharing Feelings, And Comforting Each Other
Taking care of one’s self is also advised: getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and limiting use of alcohol, caffeine, limiting overeating and cigarettes. It may help to offer assistance to others as well. Children can be helped to understand that it is normal to be upset, to express any feelings and thoughts about the events, and to return to normal routines as soon as possible.
While Some People Recover On Their Own, Or With The Mutual Help Of Beloved Ones, Given Sufficient Time, Not Everyone Does
For this reason, some people may need professional help for post-traumatic stress reactions, depression, anger or other trauma-related mental health problems. It is common for the effects of past unresolved trauma and grief to resurface and intensify.
Research has shown that 20% or more of people exposed to traumatic events typically develop clinically significant psychological problems. Many more will experience less severe effects. If significant distress continues for many weeks, becomes more, rather than less severe over time, or interferes with one’s daily ability to function, the help of a professional therapist should be considered.
When A Traumatic Event Is Caused By The Deliberate Act Of Another Human Being, The Grief Of Those Affected Is Often Mixed With Feelings Of Rage At The Cruelty And Injustice Of The Attack
People who have been victimized want to find out who is responsible, understand the motive, and see that the guilty are punished. Thoughts of revenge are normal, but too much of this kind of thinking can delay the healing process.
Discomfort to survivors of other traumas can be particularly intense. Violent events resulting in ongoing media coverage and intense public interest make it hard for people to “get some distance” from the tragedy and begin to work through their painful feelings. Limit exposure to news stories about the traumatic event if you feel they are delaying your recovery by keeping you "stuck" in a cycle of anger and grief.
Both Children And Adults Have Strong Responses To Traumatic Loss, Although They May Express Them Differently
An adult may openly show signs of depression for many months while a child may seem sad only briefly and then return to usual play activity. It’s important to remember that children do grieve; they simply have different ways of showing it—often with disruptive behavior, physical ailments, or fantasies about potential future trauma.
Reassurance Is The Key To Helping Children Through A Traumatic Time Very Young Children Need A Lot Of Cuddling, As Well As Verbal Support
Encourage children of all ages to express emotions through conversation, drawing, or painting. Answer questions about the trigger event honestly, but generally. Tailor information to the child’s level of understanding, but don’t mislead or allow the child to harbor misinformation. Give youngsters extra attention and reassurance during a period of grief.
Seeking Professional Support During Times Of Fear, Confusion And Stress Is A Positive Way To Stay Focused, And Create The Space To Heal
A therapist can help you address the loss of a sense of safety or security traumatic events often trigger. Try to maintain a normal household or classroom routine and encourage children to participate in recreational activities.
Reduce expectations temporarily about performance at school or at home, perhaps by substituting less demanding responsibilities for usual chores. Get involved and stay connected. Keep your focus on positive memories, rather than reliving the tragedy or thinking of future sorrows.
There is comfort in sharing experiences, and strength in knowing you have helped others and allowed them to help you.
(c) Copyright 2008 – Kathleen Dwyer Blair. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article, as long as you include all of the above text and the "About the Author" resource box. Additionally, links to the website and others must be live and in working order.
By: Kathleen Dwyer Blair, LCSW, BCD