Grief after Traumatic Loss
After someone you care about dies in a traumatic situation, there are a number of problems you might encounter which add to the pain of grieving. You may have witnessed the death, or the deaths and injury of others. Everyone's experience and responses will be different and there is no right or 'normal' response.
However there are some common reactions and feeling you may experience in the hours, days, weeks and months after a traumatic event. These feelings can sometimes be very strong and frightening.
There are four main types of problems which may arise after someone close to you dies in a traumatic circumstance:
'I can’t believe it’s true'
Losses for which we are unprepared, particularly if we can't be present or to hold or touch those we have lost, are difficult to make real.
It takes a long time to take in what has happened. Spend time talking it through with others and don’t worry that you are being a burden to them, that’s what friends are for. Many people might find it helpful to:
- visit the place where the person died
- talk with others involved
- place a wreath in a significant place
- attend memorial services or other rituals of remembrance.
In the end, there may be aspects of the loss that will never be explained. Be prepared to live with the uncertainty of not knowing; we cannot explain or control everything.
'I can’t get it out of my head'
Many people are haunted by pictures in their minds of the traumatic event. While this is most likely to become a problem for eye-witnesses, television or other pictures can also ‘bring home’ the awfulness of the way a person might have died. Such images may occur spontaneously or, in a distorted form, as recurrent nightmares. They may be triggered by any reminder of the loss, e.g. loud noises, cries or shouts.
Some people go to great lengths to avoid any such reminders because the images are so painful. They may shut themselves up at home, avoid talking about the loss, and distract themselves with hectic activity. This kind of reaction is not uncommon and will usually improve with time. However in severe form it may become so disabling that it becomes known as ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’ (PTSD).
Haunting images can sometimes be eased by talking to others, going over the events again and again until you get used to them. The images will not disappear but they will become less painful and easier to live with. If the images are stopping you from grieving or getting on with your life, then you should speak to your GP about being referred to specialist services, or look for a psychologist experienced in dealing with PTSD. Very effective treatments for PTSD have been developed in recent years. They do not necessarily require prescription medication, although this may help.
'I feel numb'
Numbness is our mind’s way of protecting itself from mental pain that threatens to overwhelm us. Sometimes we may be unable to think clearly, or become confused and lose our bearings. At other times we may be unable to express feelings of any kind. In an emergency it is such ‘dissociation’ that enables us to keep going, searching for a lost person or engaging in the rescue of others. It is only if it continues after the disaster is over that it becomes a problem. Usually this reflects a fear that, if we do not keep our feelings firmly under control, they will take control of us.
Grief is the natural response to the loss of a loved person. It is more likely to give rise to problems if it is bottled up than if it is expressed. At times of loss it is normal and appropriate to express grief in any way that feels natural. Some people need to cry, others will rage and others just talk endlessly about what has happened. Try to find someone you can trust who will be a good listener and don’t worry if, for a while, you look or feel helpless, that will pass.
In grieving we do not forget the people we love, we gradually find new ways to remember them. Memories of the past are sometimes painful but they are our treasure, it is best not to bury them for too long. Paradoxically, if we allow ourselves to lose control of our feelings, for a while, we can find ourselves better able to live with and to control them.
'I can’t stop crying'
Grief can continue much longer than most people expect. We need to recognise that fact and not expect too much of ourselves. This said, there are some types of grief which become “stuck”. Sometimes this reflects our need to punish ourselves – 'Why should I be happy now that he or she is dead?' This is most likely to arise if it is a child who has died, or if we blame ourselves for their death or for not being there for them when needed. At other times it reflects long-standing feelings of depression or helplessness.
Grief is not like the measles, we do not go back to being the person we were before our loss. We learn to live with it, and, little by little, the pain will diminish. Grief is not a duty to the dead, those we love would not want us to suffer. Again, talking it through with a friend or bereavement volunteer from Cruse will usually help. If that is not enough or you feel continually depressed or suicidal, you should not hesitate to seek specialist help. Several treatments including Cognitive Therapies, Psycho-therapies and anti-depressant medications will be of help and it is worth discussing with your GP which of these alternatives are available and appropriate to you. Don’t give up.
'I feel so angry'
Anger is a very natural reaction to loss, particularly if it was caused by violence, terrorism, error or negligence. It may be directed against those who caused the trauma, or against all authorities or the people nearest to hand. Some people may find themselves hitting out wildly at the people they love the best. Occasionally ill-directed anger may even feed into or bring about a cycle of violence.
Remember that anger can be a force for good if it is controlled and directed where it can do well rather than harm. Try to hold back from impulsive outbursts and, if you have said or done things that have hurt others, don’t be too proud to apologise. They will understand.
'I blame myself, I feel so guilty'
None of us is perfect and it is easy to seize on something that we did or didn’t do in our attempt to find someone to blame. Often, people end up blaming themselves. At the back of our minds we may even cling to the idea that, if we punish ourselves we will make things right again and get back the person we have lost. Sadly this magical thinking is doomed to fail.
Sooner or later we have to accept that what has happened is irrevocable and that punishing ourselves won’t change anything. Friends will often say ‘You shouldn’t blame yourself’, and maybe they are right. But you do not choose the way you feel. Guilt and anger are not feelings that can be switched on and off at will. Rather we should try to find a creative use for our grief, to bring something good out of the bad thing that has happened.
'I feel so frightened'
We all know that disasters happen, but most of the time we go through life with confidence that we are safe, protected from harm and immune from significant trauma. Then disaster strikes, all in a moment the world has become a dangerous place, we can take nothing for granted, we are waiting for the next disaster. Fear causes bodily symptoms including tense muscles, racing heart, sweating, breathlessness and sleeplessness - all symptoms which, in the environment in which we evolved would have helped us to stay alive in situations of danger. But in today’s world they do no such thing and are more likely to be misinterpreted as symptoms of illness.
The first and most important thing is to recognise that the symptoms of fear are a sign of normality, at such times a racing heart is a normal heart, headaches, back aches, indigestion, even feelings of panic, are natural reactions that will decline as time passes, they are not symptoms that will lead to something worse. In addition you are not as helpless as you feel. Relaxation exercises, meditation techniques, aromatherapy or whatever helps to relax you will put you back in control.
This said, you should not expect to go back to being the secure, confident person that you were before the disaster struck. You have learned the hard way that life is never - and never was - completely safe. You have lost the illusion of invulnerability and will never quite regain it. You are older and sadder as a result. But you are also more mature. You have learned that life has its dark side, but that does not mean that you need live your life in perpetual fear. The world today is no more dangerous than it was before the disaster. Previously you had an illusion of safety, the feeling of danger is equally illusory, and it will grow less. Human beings evolved to cope with a much more dangerous world than the one in which we live today. You, and those with you, will survive.
'Life has lost its meaning'
Each person’s sense of purpose and direction in life arises from a hundred and one habits of thought and assumptions about the world that we take for granted. Then, all of a sudden, we can take nothing for granted any more. Perhaps the person who died is the one we would have turned to at times of trouble and now, when we face the biggest trouble in our lives, they are not there, or, if they are, they are so overwhelmed by their own grief that we cannot burden them with ours.
Those who have a religious faith may find it helpful to seek pastoral support; others may find spiritual help outside of formal religious frameworks. When faced with a disaster of this magnitude it takes time and hard work to adjust. It is rather like learning to cope with the loss of a limb. For a while we will feel crippled, mutilated, as if a part of ourselves is missing.
We feel as if we had lost every good thing that relied on the presence of the person we love for its meaning. But take heart, all is not lost. Now is the time to take stock, and ask yourself what really matters? When we do that we may be surprised to find that many of the things that made sense of our lives when the lost person was with us continue to make sense of our lives now that they are away. Indeed they may make more sense because they are away. When people say 'He (or she) lives on in my memory', this is literally true.
Other sources of help
Cruse Bereavement Care is here to support you after the death of someone close. Our helpline is available - call freephone on 0808 808 1677.
You can chat to us online.
Other services are provided by our network of volunteers around the country. Contact your local service to find out what is available.
Our website for children and young people is www.hopeagain.org.uk.
The Government provides information on Support for victims of terrorism.