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Mullen-Johnson: Handling Grief after Traumatic Loss

By Crystal Mullen Johnson

Last month I focused on how to support someone that is grieving after a loss. However as one is caring for another that is grieving, it is equally important to acknowledge, and manage, personal grieving emotions.  To one experiencing a traumatic loss, or multiples losses, because of death, it can feel like life is a mess. Traumatic loss due to death creates an ongoing crisis that can feel unbearable, overwhelming, and cause feelings of tremendous stress.

The term “death” is distasteful and may onset fear. One may find it painful to imagine life without a loved one; nevertheless, death is a reality we must acknowledge will happen to everyone. Therefore, it is important to understand how to deal with loss as a result of death. Because many people are experiencing traumatic loss due to COVID-19, I recognize the need for grief support during these challenging times.

When experiencing traumatic loss as a result of death, life can suddenly feel out of control. When this occurs, one may seek for normalcy or a return to their “normal routine”; however, this return to normalcy is rarely what they find, when dealing with a traumatic loss, due to death.

Traumatic loss, due to death, happens in everyone’s life; therefore, when it comes to your doorstep, it is important to recognize if you have symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after a traumatic loss. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), according to the Mayo Clinic, is “a mental health condition that is triggered by either experiencing or observing a very frightening event”.

Symptoms may include nightmares, flashbacks, recurring anxiety, and unmanageable thoughts relating to the event.  Symptoms generally occur within three months of the traumatic event. If experience these symptoms and they are painful and unmanageable seek professional help from a licensed, accredited health care or mental health professional.

Grief is normal and everyone processes grief differently.   Therefore, the loss of someone may not necessarily onset PTSD. It is important to understand the types of grief and their symptoms, to proactively manage one’s mental health.

The three types of grief experienced after a loss, of which one should know are: acute grief, complicated grief, and integrated grief.

  • Acute grief can occur after a loss and may persist for months after the loss. The symptoms of acute grief mirror depression – sadness, loneliness, anger, guilt, tearfulness, changes in sleep patterns, and changes in appetite. To effectively manager acute grief, one should allow themselves to feel their feelings. Do not deny, dismiss, or run from them. Denying, dismissing, or avoiding these emotions can significantly complicate the grieving process.
  • Complicated grief is when one feels stuck and finds it difficult to find meaning in life after the loss. One may feel guilty about living without their loved one. These feelings are often repressed or disguised; therefore, one should pay close attention to their mental health to identify their feelings and mental state proactively and accurately. Again, a licensed, accredited mental health professional can help with this process.
  • Integrated grief occurs when one has learned to live without their loved one. During this stage, one accepts the reality of their loss. It is common, and acceptable, during this stage, to experience grieving emotions (i.e., sadness, anger, and tearfulness) during holidays, anniversary dates and birthdays. Because experiencing these emotions during Integrated grief is healthy, one should ensure to acknowledge their feelings and commemorate their loss, rather than repress it or experience despair because one “is not ‘over’ their loss”.

The following are tips to help one HEAL while grieving their loss:

  • H – Have self-compassion during the grieving process. Allow yourself to enjoy activities and rest.
  • E – Experience difficult emotions as opposed to running from them. Talk them out or journal about them. Don’t complicate or prolong the grieving process by denying them.
  • A – Allow time to heal. One may cycle through the stages of grief several times and that is normal and acceptable.
  • L – Learn to find meaning in life. Focus on self-care and engage in healthy daily habits. Continue to live although never forgetting the memories shared with your loved one

Mourning the loss of a loved one is not easy. Allow time to heal. Give permission to take as much time as necessary. If experiencing complicated grief, contact a licensed mental health or healthcare professional for support.

Having personally experienced the grief associated with traumatic loss as a result of death, I, both sympathize and empathize, with those that have a grieving heart.

My thoughts and prayers are with you during your time of grief. I am here for you.

Crystal Mullen-Johnson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Registered Play Therapist in Birmingham, AL with more than 16 years of experience in providing counseling. Strive Counseling Services is a private practice located in downtown Birmingham that offers therapeutic mental health services to children (play therapy), adolescents, and adults. Strive offers evidence-based therapeutic modalities such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Contact us at (205) 721-9893 to inquire about Telehealth Services or visit our website, www.strivebhm.com