Traumatic Grief


The tragedy in Berkeley with the tragic loss of six lives has cast negativity over this summer. The J1 is a wonderful opportunity for students to have fun, learn about a new country and yet it turned out a disaster for these students and their families. For many people the outpouring of sympathy reflects the common humanity that we have for people in distress. Death opens up the door to our own existence. For some it’s a time to examine their own life. For others, this door is rapidly firmly shut closed as it’s much too difficult to contemplate. Finally for others that door due to sad circumstances is very much opened. Many families in Ireland have lost children through tragic events road traffic collisions, drowning’s, cancer, sudden cardiac death and suicide. The Berkeley tragedy will amplify their feelings of loss. Such loss and grief does not go away, it’s always in the background.


In my therapy room I have seen this heartache. As a therapist I feel helpless and powerless in these situations. If someone comes with panic attack or depression I can see a route out of this situation and with proven tools of cognitive behavioural therapy there is an opportunity for positive outcomes. These feelings of helplessness and powerlessness that I feel when working with traumatic grief is only a drop in the ocean to the experiences of  mums and dads grieving their children.


Traumatic loss is characterised initially by shock, disbelief and numbness.  Soon anger becomes the dominate emotion. For many this is all pervasive and may never leave for others this many ease. Often missed is that grief is not only a deeply emotional experience.  The thing is that raw grief is brutal and ruthless. The individual goes through so many feelings – shock, sadness, questioning, pain, loss, hurt, confused, anger, unreal and so much more. It impacts on how we think, to the point that we cannot think anymore. Often not talked about but pervasive is physical pain that leaches into ever part of the body as a deep ache and unresolving pain.


Traumatic grief stems for traumatic incidents. Traumatic events is like throwing a stone into water where the ripples go out like a tsunami wave and can overwhelm families, friends and relatives.  Powerlessness and helplessness are the order of the day. We all want to do something. Yet we are unsure.   Really It’s about being not doing. Being present and not ignoring the pain. Allowing people to express their grief. Often with a huge traumatic event such as this older trauma wounds can be opened up.  Please remember that grief is best supported in a family and community context in the first place.


I know it’s a clichéd but our Irish culture does allows for expression of grief, through wakes and funeral traditions. Despite the amazing resilience of people in time individuals may find within themselves the capacity to cope with such events, that doesn’t mean they forget it. It just means they can continue on, just about. Within most people there is a connectedness, a strength, an inherent capacity to stick together and adapt despite the trauma.


In addition our thoughts go to those who survived and witnessed this terrible incident in Berkeley. The psychological impact for them will be different than those directly bereaved. When it comes to trauma the medical needs take priority in the initial phases. In the medium to long term the psychological needs of survivors are central. There is the potentiality for the phenomena of survival guilt. Now survivor guilt is not experienced by everyone, and may vary a great deal in intensity, it appears to be a common experience. What is survivor guilt?  Anyone who survives a traumatic experience can experience these feelings. Survivor guilt explores the other side of the coin of why me? Namely, why not me? Why did I survive when others did not?  Those who struggle with it may express the feeling of being an fraud: somehow the “wrong” person survived; it “just doesn’t seem right.” Survivor guilt may help survivors cope with the helplessness and powerlessness of being in a life-threatening situation without the ability to protect or save others. It can also be one way to express a connection to those who have died, a way, for a time, of keeping them alive.


In addressing complex grief resulting from traumatic loss the challenge is to acknowledge and accept that guilt exists. Feelings of guilt are quite common and represent part of the healing process for persons coping with loss. When people feel guilty, they tend to isolate themselves.  The challenge is to try to discuss the experience with persons who will not express judgment. Counselling can be very important to support individuals to move from this negative emotions.


The goal is that grief does not get stuck into that area of complicated grief which is an intense and long-lasting form of grief that takes over a person’s life. Traumatic or complicated grief is a form of grief that takes hold of a person’s life and won’t let go. People with complicated grief often say that they feel “stuck.”  Over time, healing diminishes the pain of a loss. Tragically, individuals with complicated grief know their loved one is gone, but they still can’t believe it. They say that time is moving on but they are not. They often have strong feelings of yearning or longing for the person who died that don’t seem to lessen as time goes on. Thoughts, memories, or images of the deceased person frequently fill their mind, capturing their attention. They might have strong feelings of bitterness or anger related to the death. They find it hard to imagine that life without the deceased person has purpose or meaning. It can seem like joy and satisfaction are gone forever. Again it’s important if you are feeling his way bereavement counselling can help. Check out an excellent resource provided by the Irish Hospice Foundation.


People say “time heals”, I say no, it’s “what you do with the time, that heals”.


Regardless, it is a time for not being OK and It’s OK not to be OK.