Woman outside through a window dealing with grief


How to cope with grief after a traumatic loss

  • Grief is a normal response to loss or traumatic events. Approximately 70 percent of people will experience emotional relief within 12 months.

Losing a loved one, experiencing a traumatic event or witnessing others endure tragedy can be difficult and emotionally overwhelming. You may even feel like your feelings of sadness will never go away. Fortunately, there are manageable ways to process your emotions and move forward while honoring a loved one or tragic event.

The grieving process

You’ve likely heard about the common stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While those emotions are common while coping with trauma or loss, the grieving process can be complicated and often doesn’t happen in a predictable order.

When you’re dealing with grief, remember:

  • You are not alone in your emotional struggle.
  • There is no right or wrong way to handle trauma or loss and there is no set timetable.
  • It’s normal to experience setbacks on the path to healing.
  • Grief can last for weeks, months and even years.
  • Feeling guilty about losing a loved one or after experiencing a traumatic event is common, but the tragedy is not your fault and beyond your control.

What is trauma?

Psychological trauma is a person’s emotional response to a scary, shocking or horrific event or series of events. Traumatic events are unpredictable and can cause overwhelming amounts of stress beyond your capacity to cope. Experiencing trauma can often shake your assumptions about life, your sense of control, feeling safe and trust in others. Losing those fundamental feelings of safety and trust can lead to anxiety and fear. You may even feel like the world is unsafe and unpredictable or question your faith. The overwhelming stress can lead to long-term psychological trauma, and in more severe cases, post-traumatic stress disorder. Any form of psychological trauma can interfere with your ability to maintain relationships, perform day-to-day activities and enjoy your life.

Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms include:

  • unpleasant reoccurring memories
  • sleep disturbances caused by nightmares or
  • stress difficulty concentrating 
  • overwhelming anxiety, stress or depression
  • the fear of not being safe guilt or shame.

Overcoming grief and trauma

Fortunately, most people overcome trauma with time and by making lifestyle changes. Finding the right treatment options is critical to your recovery.

How to deal with grief and trauma:

  • Stay connected with your loved ones and friends. Consider using grief resources, like grief support groups, in tandem with your support system.
  • Be prepared to grieve. When grief of losing a loved one resurfaces during anniversaries and other special days, there are ways to cope with grief during the holidays
  • Balancing your grieving process and regular activities can be difficult. Allow yourself the time and space needed to process various emotions and take breaks from grieving when possible.
  • Practice self-care. Make healthy food choices, maintain a regular sleep schedule, try therapeutic activities and be compassionate with yourself as you cope with grief.
  • Regular exercise can help decrease your levels of stress, anger and depression. Try incorporating deep breathing exercises and manageable physical activities into your daily routine.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help you understand your symptoms, thoughts and emotions stemming from a traumatic experience.
  • Your provider may recommend other therapy options combined with medication to help you recover.

Trauma can affect people in different ways

The nature of an event or loss isn’t always the only source of trauma. Your grieving process and emotions may look and feel different than others. Two people can experience the same event and experience different levels of trauma.

Personal factors impacting the response to trauma include:

  • how you regulate and process emotions
  • secondary stressors
  • our coping style
  • prior history of trauma 
  • access to support and resources

Feeling "numb" to tragedy

Regular tragedies can cause “compassion fatigue” and “psychic numbing,” where the mind separates emotions from thoughts causing grief. You may feel nothing at first, but days or even weeks later, a range of emotions could suddenly rush over you. Don’t feel guilty if you process loss differently or take longer than others to deal with traumatic events. Your grieving process and the emotions you’re experiencing are unique to you. The silver lining While enduring traumatic events and dealing with grief is difficult and exhausting, the experience can make you stronger and build your resiliency. You will get through this challenging time and support is available. 

When and how to seek professional help

  • When grief becomes overwhelming and you can’t carry out your day-to-day activities.
  • If your symptoms continue for months without relief.
  • When you resort to or think about using alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism.
  • If you are a loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis, call 800-273-8255 immediately to speak to a trained counselor.
  • Schedule a virtual visit with a mental health provider and discuss treatment options right for you.

Disclaimer: This article is intended to be a source of information and is not a medical consultation.


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