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Grief & Trauma: Can We Experience Them Simultaneously?

"A day of remembrance for those that lost their lives. And for all of those who gave their lives. We remember." - Unknown

It was a Tuesday morning and while we had recently moved to a new home and started at a new school district, we thought it'd be like any other Tuesday. What we didn't realize is our world would change forever and we would learn of and live a scary mark in history. I was in Mrs. Carda's fourth grade class on September 11, 2001 at 7:46am. With being so young, I'm unable to recall much of how the news traveled to my classroom and what happened after it did. All I remember is thinking, "Wow! My dad was just in New York last week." I remember not being able to make sense of what was happening. I remember fearing the threats and destruction we were witnessing states away from us would come to our backyard.


Now, as an adult remembering that day, my heart goes out to all the families who lost loved ones, to the innocent victims in this attack who (I could imagine) felt absolutely terrified and hopeless as they attempted to find a plan of action to save their lives, to the worried/terrified individuals witnessing the tragedy firsthand and feeling so helpless. September 11, 2001 left many not only grieving but also battling the trauma left behind following such a terrifying attack.


In remembrance of September 11, 2001, I want to create space to talk about the common occurrence of trauma being present while also walking through grief. I will identify traumatic grief, how it manifests, its complications on grief, and strategies to cope with traumatic grief.

***Disclaimer: Please note, the symptoms identified in this blog article are simply used to provide understanding around trauma. It is not intended to be utilized as a diagnostic assessment. If you question whether trauma is present for you, I encourage you to seek out/complete an assessment from a licensed mental health professional.


Identifying Trauma in Grief

Determining what classifies as trauma and what doesn't can be tricky; what I may view as traumatic may not be the same as what you would view as traumatic and vice versa. For the purpose of this blog article, I've chosen to only identify the common characteristics and symptoms present when working with clients who are not only grieving but battling trauma.


The following characteristics can contribute to you defining your grief or loss as traumatic:

  • The loss was sudden and lacked anticipation

  • The death was violent and destructive

  • The loss appeared to be random and unpreventable

  • The loss includes multiple deaths, and/or the life of the individual grieving was also threatened in event of the loss

  • (Burris, Giri, Martin, & Wilchesky, unidentified year)

When experiencing any sort of grief (whether traumatic or not), a wide array of symptoms accompanying our journey; both emotional and physical. Emotional responses include but are not limited to:

  • Frequent crying

  • Disoriented behavior

  • Yearning/longing for the lost loved one

Sudden or traumatic losses can also carry many physiological symptoms such as shock. The experience of shock is classified as an acute stress response; meaning it develops quickly and typically doesn't last long. Other common acute stress responses include but are not limited to:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Dry mouth

  • Sweating

  • Digestive disturbance

While the above symptoms come on quick and strong, the majority of those who are grieving are able to cope with these acute stress responses. However, research supports that 40% of those who are greiving experience prolonged stress responses while navigating the first year of the loss (Neimeyer, 2002). If your stress response symptoms persist longer than 1 month following the loss/traumatic event, I'd encourage you to seek out and complete an assessment with a licensed mental health professional to rule out any other possible mental health diagnoses such as PTSD.


Real Reflection:

Have you experienced any of the above symptoms? Have you experienced different symptoms that you're curious about?


Complications of Trauma in Grief

Grief and trauma are difficult to process and manage on their own. Situations in which we are attempting to process and manage both can be frustrating and even feeling impossible at times. One of the main ways I have seen trauma interfering with grief is in the event of trauma elements (such as flashbacks) surfacing as we attempt to process the grief. This trauma can feel paralyzing and removes our ability to continue walking forward in our grief journey.

***It's important to note, not every grief journey will involve trauma. For the ones that do, each are unique and vary in severity; resulting in a different type of grief and therapy journey.


Coping with Trauma & Grief

If you resonate with anything highlighted in this month's blog and/or are wondering whether or not trauma is present and interfering with you grief journey, I invite you to explore and engage in the following resources:

  • Complete proper trauma assessments facilitated by a licensed mental health professional who specializes in trauma

  • Seek out and engage in therapy services (individual or group); referrals may be provided following an assessment

  • Identify a healthy and effective support system

  • Implement grounding and mindfulness exercises (Calm and Headspace are two great mindfulness apps to encourage a daily practice)

Real Reflection:

Which of the above coping strategies do you believe would be best for you? How can you begin implementing these strategies?


Navigating both trauma and grief at the same time can be overwhelming. Know that you don't have to walk this alone; there are qualified professionals out there waiting to walk with you through this difficult time. I invite you to take the steps best for you to process any trauma that may be showing up in your grief; allowing you to begin (or continue) honoring your grief journey.


Here's to living a better life as your best self.

Brittany Squillace, MA, LMFT


References:

- Neimeyer, R.A. (2002). Editorial: Traumatic loss and the reconstruction of meaning. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 5(6), 935-942. https://doi.org/10.1089/10966210260499177

- Burris, S.D., Giri, P., Martine, S.M., & Wilchesky, M. Bereavement, traumatic death and meaning-making: A review of complicated grief and three grief therapies.


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