What Is Traumatic Grief Therapy?

Traumatic Grief Therapy Addresses Sudden and Painful Loss

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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.

What Is Traumatic Grief Therapy?

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.

Traumatic Grief vs. Other 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:

  • Suicide
  • Homicide
  • Accidents
  • Medical crises
  • Overdoses

“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.

Signs

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, people's trauma response falls into four categories:

  • Psychological/emotional
  • Cognitive
  • Physical
  • Behavioral

Secondly, Levin says that traumatic events violate our assumptions that keep us safe in the world. These can include:

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

When these ideals are challenged with a sudden and painful loss, traumatic grief can challenge the very core of your belief system.

When to Seek Traumatic Grief Therapy

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

What to Expect in Therapy

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

Stabilization of Trauma

This is when 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 will focus on the continual processing of feelings associated with loss, living with 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 treatment through individual therapy, group therapy, or both.

Pitfalls of Not Seeking Therapy

If you bottle your grief or pretend it doesn’t exist, you may resist the need to seek out traumatic grief therapy, resulting in negative impacts.

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.”

She also shares risks of physical and mental health disorders, such as acute stress disorder, PTSD, unhealthy coping mechanisms, and an increased risk of turning to substances.

“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.

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.

Levin notes that 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.

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