Does Grief Counselling Address the Underlying Trauma of Loss?

Sad old man talking to a doctor

Despite the circumstances, the death of a loved one is almost always traumatic to some degree.

Depending on whether the death of a loved one is sudden or expected, there may be some nuances to the bereavement experience, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that one loss is more or less traumatic than the other. They’re just different.  

We all conceptualise and process grief differently โ€“ the death of a loved one is a profoundly personal experience, and what one person finds traumatic, another may not.

Grief is a natural response to forever losing someone (or something) we love or care about, an experience we will all encounter at some stage.  

However, for many, returning to everyday life after a loved one dies can be extremely difficult, and you may need some additional support and help from a grief counsellor or therapist to help you process your grief and any related trauma.

How you feel after a loved one dies will depend on who died, your relationship with the person, how they died, and occasionally, your mental and physical health at the time of the loss. (What is grief counselling? Cruse Bereavement Support.)

Many believe that we are shaped by our unique connections to the people in our lives, and when someone close to us passes away, it can feel like a massive part of us has gone with them.

Grief can create a unique kind of trauma where you no longer see the world, yourself, or any other aspect of your life in the same way as you did when your loved one was alive.

Treatment options are available for those considering bereavement counselling, including trauma therapy and other therapeutic approaches.

There is no shame in asking for help and support after a loved one dies. In fact, it takes a lot of courage to acknowledge that you are struggling and to seek help.

If you or someone you know is struggling to come to terms with the loss of a loved one, you may find it helpful to speak to a mental health professional who can offer advice and support on how to process your grief and find a way forward.

What is grief?

Many variations of grief exist, and there are no absolutes to the bereavement experience. We all have different responses to loss and various ideas of what grief is (and isn’t).

Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s infamous grief model states that we can expect to grieve in specific stages after a loved one dies. These stages are: 

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining 
  • Depression 
  • Acceptance 

Ross explained that we may experience these stages as a sequence or all of them simultaneously, or we may experience only some of them. (Grief vs. Traumatic Grief, Psychology Today, Odelya Gertel Kraybill, PhD, September 29, 2019.)

Some experts define grief as intense sorrow or anguish that is triggered after the death of a loved one.

However, perhaps the most helpful definition of grief comes from bereavement recovery experts John. W James and Russell Friedman:

“Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behaviour.” 

The above definition of grief is helpful as it can be applied to various life experiences that are not solely related to the death of a loved one, such as:

  • Divorce or separation
  • Job loss
  • Moving home
  • The ending of a close friendship or other significant relationship
  • Going on vacation or being away from home for extended periods
  • The end of a career goal or aspiration 
  • Being diagnosed with a chronic illness

What makes grief traumatic or nontraumatic?

This can be tricky to answer as everyone experiences and processes grief differently.

Grief is profoundly complex, and each person has their perspective on loss and how it may have changed or shaped their life.

What does big T and little t trauma mean

However, experts say that traumatic grief, that is, the grief that accompanies unexpected loss, is different. This type of loss triggers post-trauma survival mechanisms in addition to mourning whatever else was unexpectedly lost. (Grief vs. Traumatic Grief, Psychology Today, Odelya Gertel Kraybill, PhD, September 29, 2019).

But what qualifies someone’s bereavement experience to be traumatic or unexpected? 

All loss is unexpected to an extent, even when predicted or anticipated, as is often the case when a loved one suffers from a chronic or long-term illness.

James A. Mitchener’s infamous quote, “We are never prepared for what we expect”, may go a long way in helping us understand the type of losses associated with anticipatory grief. No matter how much we prepare to lose someone we love, we cannot predict our emotional or physical responses when the inevitable happens.

Again, we come back to the same point, all loss, no matter what shape it takes, is traumatic to an extent.

Traumatic loss

However, the degree of trauma may differ in some bereavement situations, particularly in cases of sudden loss. 

For example, a sudden loss is more likely due to a tragic event such as a severe injury or act of violence. 

Every loss feels tragic regardless of how it happens, but when a person loses a loved one out of the blue, without any warning, it can make accepting the loss and the facts surrounding it more complicated and challenging to bear.

A sudden loss gives the griever little or no time to prepare, an experience that can leave more questions in its wake than typical grief. 

For instance, those suddenly bereaved may ask themselves questions like “How did this happen?”, “Am I to blame? Could I have done more to prevent this from happening?” and “Why him/her?”.

In addition, experts say that traumatic loss may make a person’s shock responses last longer than normal grief.

For instance, many bereavement experiences involve feelings of numbness, disbelief and shock. Still, with sudden loss, there is no time to prepare, so the griever will likely spend more time in the initial disbelief stages.

There’s never a good way or good time to lose someone you love; however, unexpected or sudden losses may create more complications and treatment challenges for mourners than other types of grief.

What is grief counselling?

Grief counselling can take various forms, including talk therapy or enlisting in a support group with people who share similar experiences to you.

A grief therapist or counsellor can help you in various ways, including:

  • Helping you make sense of your loss.
  • Providing a safe space for you to talk about specific feelings and emotions related to your grief, helping to alleviate and resolve any emotional distress.
  • Helping you build a better understanding of self and the world post-bereavement, improving how you relate to others and yourself.
  • Addressing any underlying trauma associated with your loss. This may include trauma therapy to help you manage PTSD symptoms resulting from traumatic grief, such as flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance behaviours, etc.

Does grief counselling address the underlying trauma of loss?

Young black man during counseling

Since it can be challenging to predict how an individual will respond to the death of a loved one, some grief counselling programs involve a form of trauma therapy.

Grief and trauma counselling is a type of psychotherapy that helps people manage their grief following the death of a loved one and can even help individuals dealing with significant life changes like separation or divorce.

This therapy also aims to address and resolve trauma symptoms and emotional regulation issues, helping individuals to manage their trauma while processing losses associated with grief. 

Traumatic grief therapy is a treatment recommended to those who have experienced the sudden death of a loved one, as it simultaneously addresses the trauma responses and grief associated with a traumatic death. (What Is Traumatic Grief Therapy? Verywell mind, Shelby Deering, July 31, 2021.)

It is essential to note that trauma and grief are not mutually exclusive, and just because you did not lose your loved one suddenly doesn’t mean you won’t experience trauma symptoms.  

Many people who lose their loved ones to long-term illness or other situations where a loved one’s death is somewhat anticipated can experience symptoms of trauma just as severe as those encountered in a sudden loss.

All grievers can benefit from trauma therapy to help them process their grief, allowing them to understand and manage their trauma symptoms, including where they come from and what they mean.

For example, an individual who loses a loved one to a long-term illness like heart disease may have endured many traumatic incidents, particularly if their loved one was hospitalised over long periods. 

These traumatic events may include exposure to life support measures, constant upsetting updates regarding a loved one’s health status and exposure to specific medical environments, including intensive care or higher dependency units. 

These profoundly traumatic experiences can induce PTSD symptoms and specific types of grief in families and caregivers of hospitalised loved ones, including ambiguous loss and post-intensive care syndrome.

Types of traumatic grief

Experts define traumatic grief as “specific grief that occurs after a loved one dies in a traumatic manner, usually, but not always, in a sudden, unexpected way.” (What Is Traumatic Grief Therapy? Verywell mind, Shelby Deering, July 31, 2021.)

Some examples of traumatic loss include the following:

  • Homicide
  • Medical emergency or crisis
  • Severe accidents, such as a motorcycle accident or falling off a high building
  • Suicide

Various types of grief therapy and techniques

Traumatic grief therapy is personalised to accommodate each individual, addressing their specific experiences, symptoms and needs. 

This treatment uses various therapeutic approaches and modalities, including the following:

Regulating the nervous system and stabilising the trauma

Studies show how trauma therapy can help regulate emotions and rebalance and calm the nervous system โ€“ allowing individuals to develop specific coping skills to manage their trauma and grief symptoms, including self-regulation and building a robust support system.

Creating a safe, structured environment for grievers is essential and can help build feelings of safety where the body can begin to trust again. Trauma experts call this particular phase of treatment the ‘stabilisation of trauma’.

Trauma processing

After the stabilisation phase of therapy is completed, the next step will be to start processing your grief and trauma with the help and guidance of a therapist.

When individuals experience distress or become overwhelmed, they’ll be encouraged to stop and revisit any earlier skills learned in therapy, which will help reduce symptoms and increase coping skills. (What Is Traumatic Grief Therapy? Verywell mind, Shelby Deering, July 31, 2021.)

Future grief work

crying couple in therapy

According to mental health researcher and writer Shelby Deering, the next step of traumatic grief therapy is to focus on the continual processing of emotions and feelings associated with loss; this includes the following:

  • Accepting the loss and grieving what has been lost
  • Learning to live with the uncertainty of trauma
  • Addressing loose ends and anything that has been left unfinished
  • Rewriting specific beliefs or narratives about the loss 
  • Developing and cultivating close bonds with others
  • Facilitating post-traumatic growth

Deering explains that individuals can seek additional grief therapy through group or individual therapy (or both). (What Is Traumatic Grief Therapy? Verywell mind, Shelby Deering, July 31, 2021.)

Grief counselling treatment at Centres for Health and Healing

Centres for Health and Healing provides personalised addiction and mental health treatment to clients in Ontario and surrounding regions.

Our integrated treatment programs are shaped around our client’s individual needs, goals and preferences, and our treatment centre is client-focused.

We know that each individual has had their own unique experiences that have brought them to our centre. Therefore, we understand the importance of a personalised treatment approach that addresses the ‘whole’ person, not just their symptoms.

Our multi-professional team includes nurses, psychotherapists, counsellors and healthcare staff to ensure you get the most out of treatment.

Grief may deeply wound us, but it doesn’t have to define who we are or limit our potential for the future. We can learn to grow through our wounds and become the best version of ourselves, and all this is possible at Centres for Health and Healing.

If you or a loved one are struggling to come to terms with losing a loved one or need help processing your grief, we are here for you. 

Contact a friendly specialist at our Ontario recovery centre today to learn more about our treatment programs.

We are here and ready to help.

Additional resources

  1. What Is Traumatic Grief Therapy? Verywell mind, Shelby Deering, July 31, 2021.
  2. Grief vs Traumatic Grief, Psychology Today, Odelya Gertel Kraybill, PhD, September 29, 2019.
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