What Is Traumatic Grief Therapy?

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What Is Traumatic Grief Therapy?

Traumatic grief therapy is a type of treatment used to help people who have experienced the sudden death of a loved one. When a loved one passes away suddenly, the people left behind often experience traumatic grief. In order to deal with this intense kind of grief, therapy can be a helpful and healthy way to process painful emotions.

Jennifer R. Levin, PhD, a therapist who is an expert in thanatology (the study of death, dying, and bereavement), defines traumatic grief therapy as "therapy that simultaneously addresses the trauma response and grief associated with a traumatic death."

The goals of this form of therapy include emotional regulation, reduction of trauma symptoms, learning skills to cope and manage trauma, and processing losses associated with grief.

Types of Grief

Traumatic grief specifically takes place after a loved one passes away in a traumatic manner, and, as Levin says, "usually, but not always, in a sudden, unexpected manner."

Examples of death that might lead to traumatic grief include:

  • Accidents
  • Homicide
  • Medical crises
  • Overdoses
  • Suicide

"Traumatic grief can also occur when an individual, who is a survivor, is involved in the incident that took a loved one’s life, witnessed what happened, or found a deceased loved one," Levin says. Additionally, if someone needs to make difficult medical decisions regarding a loved one's care such as resuscitation or terminating life support, a trauma response can follow.

Techniques

Traumatic grief therapy is often tailored to address an individual's specific needs and symptoms. It may draw on various techniques, including:

Although everyone’s traumatic grief therapy journey differs, Levin outlines some general techniques and steps you can expect throughout therapy.

Stabilization of Trauma

Stabilization is the step in which you and your therapist will develop a rapport and feeling of safety, with a focus on routine and structure so you can rebuild an environment in which your body will begin to trust again.

Jennifer R. Levin, PhD

We focus on how to regulate emotions, calm the nervous system, develop skills to self-regulate, and build a support system.

— Jennifer R. Levin, PhD

Process the Trauma

After you’ve built a solid foundation, you’ll begin to process the trauma and grief using the skills learned in the first step. If you feel overwhelmed or experience trauma responses, Levin says that you’ll stop and go back to earlier skills to "decrease symptoms" and "increase coping skills."

Later Grief Work

This step focuses on the continual processing of feelings associated with loss, living with the uncertainty of the trauma, grieving what has been lost, addressing what has been left undone, rewriting narratives, meaning-making, developing continual bonds, and facilitating post-traumatic growth. In this stage, participants can seek further treatment through individual therapy, group therapy, or both.

What Traumatic Grief Therapy Can Help With

Traumatic grief therapy is specifically designed to help people cope with the trauma of a sudden loss. There are two key signs that you may be specifically dealing with traumatic grief:

  • The trauma response that interacts with the grief
  • The shattering of your assumptive expectations that guide you in the world

Levin explains the details of these signs. First of all, she says, "The trauma response is what makes traumatic grief different from other forms of grief."

In some cases, a person may respond normally to an abnormal event. While everyone has different reactions to trauma, traumatic grief therapy can help people cope with different aspects of the response to trauma including:

  • Psychological/emotional responses
  • Cognitive responses
  • Physical responses
  • Behavioral responses

Trauma also upends some of the assumptions that keep you safe in the world, such as:

  • You and your loved ones are safe in the world (school, work, crossing the street, etc.)
  • You expect the world to be predictable and not random
  • You expect things to happen for a reason
  • You expect to be rewarded for your work

When these ideals are challenged with a sudden and painful loss, traumatic grief can challenge the very core of your belief system. Traumatic grief therapy can help restore normalcy and help you better process and understand the trauma and its effects.

Benefits

There are several benefits associated with traumatic grief therapy. According to Levin, they include:

  • A decrease in symptoms
  • Increased coping mechanisms
  • An increased likelihood for post-traumatic growth
  • Continuing bonds with deceased
  • Ability to envision future possibilities
  • Continue living a meaningful life

"So many of my clients cannot envision continuing on without their loved one, especially when a spouse dies," Levin says.

While many clients are not suicidal after the sudden death of a loved one, they often show a lack of motivation or desire to engage with the world.

In her work, Levin has seen many people benefit from traumatic grief therapy. With time, patience, and the belief that life can improve, many go on to lead meaningful lives.

Effectiveness

Research suggests that therapy can be an effective tool for helping people manage the symptoms and experience of traumatic grief.

  • One 2015 study published in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology found that intervention with brief eclectic psychotherapy was effective for help people to cope with the symptoms of traumatic grief. Strategies used in this intervention included reviewing the traumatic event, finding meaning, writing assignments, and farewell rituals.
  • Another study found that a day treatment program designed to help people experiencing traumatic grief could also be effective. Such programs could potentially be helpful for people who have experienced natural disasters or war-related trauma.

Things to Consider

If you bottle your grief or pretend it doesn’t exist, you may resist seeking out traumatic grief therapy, which can have a number of negative effects on your well-being.

Levin says that people may experience a "continuation or an increase of trauma symptoms, including rumination about details of the incident, flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance anxiety, and depression."

Grief may also increase the risk of physical and mental health disorders, such as acute stress disorder, PTSD, unhealthy coping mechanisms, and an increased risk of substance misuse.

"You may be able to repress symptoms for the short term, but it will come back and cause bigger issues, or you will have multiple issues to address," Levin warns.

How to Get Started

If the trauma symptoms you’re experiencing and/or the pain of grief are making it difficult for you to function in areas such as work, taking care of others, getting out of bed, or getting through the day—it’s likely time to seek out traumatic grief therapy.

Talk to your doctor about the symptoms you have been experiencing and ask them to refer you to a mental health professional in your area who can provide this type of therapy. Some research also suggests that web-based options may be helpful for relieving symptoms associated with grief and bereavement, so you might also consider online therapy as an option.

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