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Traumatic Grief

When death is sudden and unexpected

Win Henderson via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Win Henderson via Wikimedia Commons

As mass violence is becoming more prevalent in our society, we are becoming a nation of mourners. With each new episode, we are stunned, shocked and saddened. Often there is little opportunity to recover from one episode before another occurs. These events impact us on all levels; physically, mentally, socially and spiritually. We do not even have to be personally involved to be overcome by anger, fear and grief. These events lead us to question our beliefs about the nature of man, the meaning of life and the role of God in the Universe. Our sense of security is shattered. We feel helpless and vulnerable. We are experiencing traumatic grief. Traumatic grief is defined as an abrupt, unexpected loss. We are not just mourning the loss; we are also traumatized by it. One goes to a movie, school, work or out to eat and never comes home.

For those directly impacted by the violence, their lives become shattered. They are shocked and in disbelief. Their emotions are intense and unpredictable. All of a sudden nothing makes sense. Pictures of the trauma play out in their heads. What did he think or feel? Was she in pain? Survivors will likely have difficulty eating, concentrating, sleeping and feeling safe. Some may develop physical symptoms or anxiety and panic disorders. Some may also cease to function. They may want to stay home and keep family close to them. They may become less trustful and hypervigilant. Then there is survivors’ guilt and the “if onlys.” Why did this happen to her and not me? We are frustrated trying to make sense out of something that makes no sense but if we can come up with some plausible reason then it helps to provide some order to the chaos.

For the survivors and families of mass murders, it is important that they give themselves time to adapt to their new circumstances. They should not push themselves or put on a “brave face.” They should try to return to some routine. Limit exposure to the media. Express anger. It is a normal emotion at this time. Seek out what comforts. Find a therapist. Ask for help when in need. Take care of your physical needs; eat, sleep, rest. At these times, others who have experienced mass violence may re-experience their own traumatic grief. We should be mindful of them as well. Grief never really goes away but it is about how we incorporate it into our lives. It has been found that it is harder to cope with a human made disaster than a naturally occurring one like a hurricane. One of the most important things that the bereaved can do is to talk about the event as much as needed. After Katrina, we talked about it for years. Strangers waiting in long lines for food would talk to other strangers about their experience. Even now, 10 years later, it still has the ability to re-traumatize with each new Hurricane season.

For those of us not personally involved in the mass deaths, we also need to talk about what has happened and monitor ourselves for signs of trauma. Much of our vicarious trauma can be helped by not following the media so closely. If we know someone who has been directly affected, we can be supportive and not try to fix what cannot be fixed. If they need to, let them talk, cry, rant and rave. One of the most important things we can do is listen. Many times people tend to avoid the survivor because of the intensity of their emotions and grief. Now is not the time to abandon them.

Recovery from such terrible events is hard for some to imagine. However, throughout human existence, peoples and civilizations have undergone terrible horrors, pain and suffering. What we have discovered is that the human spirit is amazingly resilient and recovery is possible.

More from Marilyn A. Mendoza Ph.D.
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