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Grief After a Traumatic Loss: How Therapy Can Help


Three Anglican priests attending a funeral

Grief is often painful. But when you lose someone to violence or injustice, the rollercoaster of emotions that follow can feel unbearable.


A traumatic loss can shatter your assumptions about the world, yourself, and others. It can leave you feeling like the world is unsafe or unpredictable. Or that others can’t be trusted.

You might struggle with feelings of anger, guilt, confusion, and anxiety, and you may even start to question your faith.


 

Listen to Say Their Name, a 2021 New York Festival & Webby Award-winning podcast series covering the assault and killing of unarmed Black people by police.

 

The impacts of traumatic loss

We know from research that losing someone in a traumatic way can lead to more intense and prolonged grief symptoms.


Parents who have lost a child to accidents, suicide, homicide, or undetermined causes, for example, have much higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than the general population.


How grief impacts a person after a traumatic death depends largely on how they interpret and respond to the event. The person’s culture, personality, coping style, and support system all come into play. So does having a history of trauma, which can compound grief.


Grieving with others

While grief is a deeply personal experience, social support can make recovery easier. Friends and family can help with daily responsibilities as you recover. They can also offer emotional support.


But not everyone knows how to provide grief support. Even those with good intentions often make comments that minimize your grief or attempt to suppress it. They may push you to move on before you’re ready, leaving you feeling weak, ashamed, and isolated.


If you’re not getting the support you need from friends and family, grief support groups can help.


Sharing your thoughts and feelings and hearing from others who have experienced loss may help you feel less alone in your grief. These groups are typically led by trained grief counselors who can effectively moderate the group to ensure no person’s experience is dismissed or minimized.


When grief is “complicated”

Grief is not something to move past or “get over.” It may never go away completely. But over time, most people do tend to feel grief less intensely.


If you’re struggling to carry out normal activities more than a year after your loved one’s death, you may have complicated grief.


This is when your symptoms continue for an extended period and don’t improve. Complicated grief can dominate your life and interfere with your daily functioning. Here are some of the symptoms:

  • Intense emotional pain

  • Feelings of emptiness or hopelessness

  • Feeling as if you are “going crazy”

  • Pervasive yearning to be with the departed person

  • Difficulty accepting the death

  • Ruminating over why the person died and who is to blame

  • Feeling of intense guilt, regret, or shame

  • Avoiding things that remind you of the person

  • Feeling like you’ve lost part of yourself

  • Feeling detached from surviving friends and family

  • Withdrawal from social activities


Caring husband comforting black wife having

When to see a therapist

If you think you might be struggling with complicated grief, seeing a therapist can help.


Grief counseling with a trained therapist can help you adjust to life without your loved one and work through trauma around their death. In therapy, you can freely express your feelings without worries of being judged or criticized.


When a person dies suddenly or unexpectedly, unresolved issues in your relationship can bring up feelings of guilt, shame, and regret. A therapist can help you work through these feelings.


Grief therapists use different approaches to helping people work through grief and trauma. Some experts use the Stages of Grief model. Others recommend rituals to connect with the departed person.


Two of the most common approaches used for bereavement include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance commitment therapy (ACT).


During a CBT session, the therapist may ask you to explore your thoughts and beliefs around grief and loss to understand how they affect your mood and behavior. The therapist may encourage you to reframe or reinterpret these negative thoughts as they arise.


ACT uses mindfulness techniques to help you accept your experience and cope with feelings of grief and loss in a way that’s helpful for you.


Whether you decide to seek grief counseling in a group setting or with a private therapist, what’s most important is getting help. Your grief is valid, and there’s no right or wrong way to grieve.


Listen to the Say Their Name Podcast

Grief is hard enough in the best of circumstances. Losing a loved one to injustice—like police violence—can feel unbearable.


It’s what inspired us to create our Say Their Name podcast. The New York Festival & Webby-Award winning series sheds light on how American families and communities are affected by the rampant problem of police violence against Black men and women.


Hear from family members, friends, and others about what it’s like to lose someone to police violence—and how they’re fighting back against a corrupt system. Listen Now.