Traumatic Bereavement

What is a traumatic bereavement?

Sometimes the death of the person you care about has happened in circumstances that cause you to feel traumatised. This may be because there was an accident in which you were also involved. Often it is because you found or saw their body and what you saw imprints itself in your head in a way that you cannot seem to focus on anything else.  Perhaps it is because you saw the resuscitation attempts by paramedics or tried to resuscitate the person yourself. After an accident, a homicide or a suicide, we see real life scenes that would normally be on our TV screens as part of fictional programme. Sometimes our relative or friend was caught up in a major disaster and there is widespread media coverage of the actual event.

Different people can see the same event and react in very different ways. It is just something that happens and you do not need to feel embarrassed or ashamed that you have been affected in this way.

It is also possible to experience this type of trauma if you witnessed a death or saw the person who died even if they were a complete stranger to you and you do not expect to grieve for them even though you may be sad that someone has died and have sympathy for their family and friends.

Very soon after the event

It is common that in the hours and days after the death we go over and over in our minds what happened in the final hours of the person’s life. This happens if we were there and if we were not present then our imaginations take over and try and fill in the gaps of what we don’t know. In some cases medical and nursing personnel, police and other emergency service staff can give you factual information that can help, even though it may be difficult to hear. Sadly, sometimes we just do not know exactly what happened and when, especially if the person is not discovered for some time after they died.

Telling the story

Most people find that they are more resilient than they ever believed possible. Grieving continues to be incredibly hard but you do find that your emotions change as time passes. Grief is a whirlpool or rollercoaster of emotions at times, when you may feel angry, guilty (even if there is no reason to do so), desperately sad, completely lacking in motivation even to get up, dressed or prepare food. It can be many months or longer before you find yourself able to remember the person who died with mainly positive memories of good times. You will always miss them but you are able to imagine life without them.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) & Getting Help

This is a psychological condition that can exist at the same time as grief.  It can be treated but this should always be by therapists trained to help people with this condition.

It is suggested that one should wait around 6 weeks following the death before seeking help with PTSD symptoms as it can be difficult to distinguish them from the symptoms of normal grief (that are described above) earlier than that.  PTSD does not always occur immediately after the traumatic event and can appear months or years later.

There are two organisations that specialise in trauma associated with bereavement and we would recommend contacting them if you have come to this page seeking help after a traumatic death or you have been affected by a major disaster.

Assist Trauma Care This link takes you to their page describing traumatic bereavement and when to seek their specialist help. There is information about PTSD.

Disaster Action exists to support people affected by a major disaster, in the UK and overseas.