grief, trauma

Trauma and Grief: Understanding Trauma in the Grieving Process

trauma and grief

Grief and trauma can intersect, but grief is not always traumatic. However, underlying trauma in a person’s life can cause grief to be an even more challenging experience than it already is. And there is such a thing as traumatic grief (we’ll look at that definition in a sec!).

Trauma refers to a deeply distressing or disturbing experience that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope. When individuals experience a traumatic event, it can profoundly impact their ability to grieve and navigate the grieving process.

Understanding the nature and effects of trauma in the context of grief can be helpful when you are dealing with both—so let’s take a closer look at trauma in the grieving process.

First, What’s Traumatic Grief?

Dr. Joanne Cacciatore defines traumatic grief as grief resulting from a traumatic death. According to Dr. Cacciatore, a traumatic death is any sudden or unexpected death, a violent death, death after prolonged suffering, suicide, homicide, and death of a child at any age from any cause.

Traumatic grief requires more support for much longer than someone not grieving a traumatic death. “Traumatic grief is a sustained state of disequilibrium to which the mourning person cannot adjust,” writes Dr. Cacciatore in her book Bearing the Unbearable.

The Relationship Between Trauma and Grief

Grief and trauma are intertwined in complex ways. Not only can you have existing trauma before experiencing grief, but the feelings that grief brings are often similar to those you may feel when re-experiencing or remembering trauma.

Shock, disbelief, anger, guilt, and fear can all come up while remembering a traumatic event. But these are also feelings that come up in grief. And here’s the kicker: if you have trauma in your past (most of us do!), it can make coping with a loss more difficult.

Grieving while dealing with trauma may also lead to physical and psychological symptoms, including intrusive thoughts, nightmares, depression, anxiety, and insomnia. The presence of trauma can make grief feel even more painful, making the journey of integrating your grief even more challenging.

How Trauma Can Impact Your Grieving Process

Trauma has a way of intensifying normal grief reactions. It can disrupt your ability to process and make sense of the loss, leading to prolonged feelings of sadness, confusion, and distress.

Individuals who have experienced trauma may struggle with unresolved issues, survivor guilt, or no sense of safety, complicating their ability to mourn in a way that feels authentic to them.

When you throw traumatic grief on top of trauma you may already have, the process can feel even more overwhelming. Tackling your trauma while processing your grief is a big job, and it’s one you don’t have to do alone.

The Importance of Seeking Trauma-Informed Care

When you have experienced the loss of a loved one in a traumatic death or have experienced trauma in your past, working with a trauma-informed professional for your grieving process will be important.

Trauma-related symptoms such as dissociation, numbing, or hypervigilance may interfere with the ability to integrate the loss into your life in a healthy way. The fear of becoming overwhelmed by emotions or retraumatization can also cause significant distress when you are already in pain from grieving.

It’s essential for any therapist or coach you work with to provide a safe and supportive environment that acknowledges and addresses these challenges throughout your journey.

Strategies for Processing Trauma During Grief

Healing from trauma during the grieving process is a complex and personal journey. However, there are strategies that can support your grief integration process.

These may include trauma-focused therapy, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), or Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), which help process traumatic memories and beliefs.

Mindfulness practices, grounding techniques, and relaxation exercises can also offer individuals coping mechanisms to manage overwhelming emotions.

Engaging in self-care activities, establishing a support network, and seeking professional help are additional strategies that can help you on your grief journey, especially if you are experiencing traumatic grief or dealing with trauma from your past.

It’s Possible to Honor Both Trauma and Grief

Trauma can significantly impact the grieving process, complicating and intensifying the emotional experience. It doesn’t matter if you have experienced a significant life event, such as tattoo dysphoria, that results in your grief or if you have lost a beloved being in your life—trauma can still impact your grief journey.

Acknowledging the complex relationship between trauma and grief, understanding how trauma influences the grieving process, and offering trauma-informed support are essential in holding space for individuals navigating both trauma and loss.

By addressing the specific challenges individuals face with trauma, people can walk with their grief and find meaning in their lives, even after experiencing a devastating loss.

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