Will Trauma Grief Counseling Help?

Author: Andrea Hug

Sudden death in the military isn’t the same as an anticipated death. That’s why “stages of grief” and books about grief following illnesses or advanced age seldom make sense after a traumatic death. Those who don’t know better may tell you, “Well, when he signed up for the military, everyone knew that this could happen.” Yes, most families consider the risk, and at the same time pray and expect that their loved one will return home safely. Email, phone calls, and other “real time” communications, add to the family’s assurance that the person across the country or in combat around the globe is fine. Then, suddenly, he or she is dead, and military officials find their way to your doorstep. Military deaths usually come suddenly and, all too often, violently. Usually they come to those who are young and fit and serving their country, which makes their loss all the more difficult to comprehend because they are at the prime of their lives and ready to meet all challenges that come their way. You may sometimes think that because you are proud that your loved one died while serving, you should not grieve— or at least not grieve deeply. That is not so. It is not an “either/or” situation. You can be proud that your loved one served our country and, at the same time, deeply mourn all that you have lost.

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Trauma death differs from other types of death in some critical ways, and a survivor’s reactions can differ too. Unlike deaths that come from natural causes, your loved one’s death may have been someone’s fault or even intentionally caused by someone else, been sudden and unexpected, involved terrible harm to your loved one’s precious body, and/or happened very far away. All of these factors can make grief work following a loved one’s death more complicated.

It is not easy to decide if or when you need the help of a trauma grief counselor to help you live with your grief. Most people find that counseling is helpful, even if they feel they could get along without it. Counseling certainly will not hurt you if your counselor has some understanding of trauma following the sudden, violent death of a loved one and is committed to treating survivors with dignity and compassion.  

Trauma grief shares many symptoms with clinical depression: 

  • Appetite changes
  • Sleep disturbances 
  • Physical aches and pains 
  • Decreased sexual desire 
  • Loss of energy 
  • Inability to concentrate 
  • Need to withdraw

These trauma grief symptoms can be misdiagnosed if the counselor is not fully aware of what you have experienced. Some counselors are not aware that natural grieving often becomes clinical depression, particularly if the death is traumatic.

Other common reactions among trauma survivors include: 

  • Unanticipated periods of crying (grief spasms) 
  • Dreams and flashbacks 
  • Anger that is difficult to focus 
  • Difficulty deciding what to do with mementos, clothing, and other possessions of the deceased 
  • Deep sadness, including irrational death wishes such as homicidal or suicidal fantasies 
  • Fear and anxiety, particularly about getting out in the community alone

No one knows for sure how long you should grieve, how many symptoms you should expect, or how intense a partic¬ular symptom will be for you. We do know that, for most people, the grieving hurts, and it lasts a long time.

On the other hand, it is crucial for you to realize that you will feel better over time. Time certainly does not “heal all wounds,” but it does promote healing. The problem, however, is that we want to push the time it takes. We are a society of quick fixes, but there’s no way that this will be fixed quickly. Anne Lamott says it well in her book, Traveling Mercies.

All those years I fell for the great palace lie that grief should be gotten over as quickly as possible and as privately. But, what I’ve discovered is that the lifelong fear of grief keeps us in a barren, isolated place, and that only grieving can heal grief. The passage of time will lessen the acuteness, but time alone, without the direct experience of grief, will not heal it.

Many survivors begin to rejuvenate on their own if they have family and friends who accept them, support them, and join them in their grieving. You will need to talk about the circumstances of the death and to share memories of your loved one over and over again. If your family or friends are unable or unwilling to be with you and hear you, you can find support from reading books of stories of other trauma grief survivors and by affiliating with organizations like TAPS. Many survivors find that support groups help them regain emotional health. If a group is not available, or you find that a group does not help, you may decide to seek professional help. Some choose professional help along with support groups.

Most people know when they need professional help. They know because their symptoms are severe or because they are not improving. Some know they need help because their emotional pain is too difficult to endure. They are exhausted, but can’t sleep because of disturbing thoughts, memories, or nightmares. Sleep deprivation leads to irritability, anger outbursts, and depression. A professional trauma grief counselor can help you assess your thoughts, feelings, and symptoms to determine if they are appropriate to your loss and grief. It is paradoxical that sometimes when you are feeling unsure, you are actually progressing well through your grief. If you are better today than you were a week ago or a month ago, you are probably making reasonable progress. If you are the same or worse, you will probably benefit from help.

The most important rule in finding the right professional counselor is to trust your “gut” feelings. If, after two or three sessions, you do not feel supported, understood, and comfortable, you have the right to go elsewhere. You cannot get better in therapy unless you feel emotionally connected to the therapist in a way that makes you feel safe to share your thoughts and feelings honestly. Therapy can be painful. At the same time, you will find yourself looking forward to the sessions because you trust your counselor will treat you with dignity and compassion.  

For help connecting with a grief counselor in your local area, call TAPS at 800-959-TAPS (8277) or email info@taps.org. TAPS connects you with individual counseling through programs that offer free, unlimited counseling such as the VA's Vet Centers and Give an Hour.  

anice Harris LordBy Janice Harris Lord, ACSW-LCSW/LPC: Janice Harris Lord received her MSSW degree from University of Texas at Arlington and is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and professional counselor (LPC). She is a Fellow in Thanatology with the Association of Death Education and Counseling and is a member of the International Society of Traumatic Stress Studies. Her classic book, No Time for Goodbyes: Coping with Sorrow, Anger, and Injustice After a Tragic Death, has recently been updated to the 6th edition and is available at www.amazon.com