The death of a child is unlike any other loss in human experience; it breaks all the rules. In the aftermath of a child’s death, parents often experience surprising, unsettling reactions such as flashbacks, anxiety attacks, or recurring nightmares. Unbeknownst to many parents, child loss is inherently traumatic, and these reactions are characteristic of a trauma-response process that is separate from natural grief responses.
Though grieving for your child is a lifelong journey, trauma doesn’t have to be. Many parents suffer unnecessarily with the symptoms of undiagnosed trauma, feeling stuck in their grief and unable to cope with their heartbreaking loss. Acknowledging the traumatic nature of your loss sheds new light on the emotions and reactions you are experiencing. Identifying the differences between grief and trauma and addressing both, piece by piece, will bring a new sense of understanding to your experience. Doing so will contribute to a more progressive and healthy grieving process. This article will help you understand and recognize the differences between grief and trauma, as well as provide suggestions for coping with trauma responses. There is no road map for your grief journey; however, there are strategies for identifying roadblocks along the way.
How Is Trauma Different from Grief?
Though your emotions and feelings can seem muddled at times, trauma responses are separate and different from the emotional and physical characteristics of grief. Grief is of the heart, and trauma is of the mind. In other words, grief is an emotional process, while trauma is a cognitive process that impacts mental, emotional, and physical functioning.
Grief is a natural human response to a loss. Some responses common to grief are shock, deep sadness, tearfulness, loss of interest in usual activities, numbness, sleeplessness, exhaustion and loneliness, heaviness in the chest, restlessness, and poor concentration. Though we have listed some common grief responses, we are in no way suggesting that there is a right way to grieve. Each person grieves in her or his own unique way.
Psychological trauma occurs following exposure to an extraordinary stressor outside the usual realm of human experience. When faced with a traumatic event, a complex system that evolved as a function of our survival instinct (the “fight, flight, or freeze” response) takes over the body and mind. In everyday life, our brains repeat this function efficiently in milliseconds, such as when you hear a loud noise. However, trauma injury occurs when a parent faces the devastating realization that his or her child has died, and there is no previously established understanding available that helps the brain and body process what has happened and cope with the unacceptable reality of the child’s absence. The state of alarm, shock, and horror that washes over parents can overwhelm and disarm coping. The mind will continue cycling through events in an effort to categorize and make sense out of the unexplainable, leaving parents with a myriad of overwhelming physical, emotional, and psychological reactions.
In contrast to grief responses, trauma responses can include intense anxiety, hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response (jumpy, edgy), extreme sensitivity to environmental stimuli (sounds, light, smells), uncontrollable avoidance of thinking or talking about what has happened or of people and places associated with the death, inability to concentrate, nightmares, flashbacks (as if you are right there again), and recurring painful imagery. These responses have a pervasive nature and seem to override one’s capacity to manage, problem-solve, and cope.
For the first few weeks following the death of a child, an intense stress response is appropriate due to the overwhelming nature of coping with the loss of a child. For some, trauma responses remit over time as the mental and emotional acceleration naturally tones down. For others, this toning down does not happen, and individuals remain in a heightened state. Weeks or months later, a bereaved parent may find themselves still struggling with emotions, bodily sensations, and thoughts that seem to have a will of their own and which stand in the way of their grief.
Psychological trauma injury can lead to challenges that complicate parents’ grieving process. Without resolution, the trauma response can become the overriding function operating in your body and mind. If you are experiencing prolonged trauma responses, you will need to attend to them before you can move naturally through your grieving process. Often this requires professional assistance to help prevent the trauma responses you are experiencing from becoming a chronic condition. It is important to recognize that factors such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, or depression can complicate and prolong your grief, and appropriate supportive interventions can help you shift toward a healthy and progressive grieving process.
Steps Toward Healthy Coping
Trauma responses are often pervasive, meaning they come without warning and overtake an individual’s senses. Developing the ability to effectively calm your body and mind can greatly reduce the duration and overpowering nature of an anxiety response, flashbacks, or recurring images. Mindfulness practices are very effective tools for interrupting the trauma-response cycle, improving coping mechanisms, and providing a greater sense of calm and focus. The following Walking Meditation exercise is an excerpt from When Your Child Dies: Tools for Mending Parents’ Broken Hearts, which offers parents a variety of suggestions and tools for managing the discomfort associated with trauma.
Walking meditation is highly effective for calming and focusing your mind, as well as relaxing your body. The exercise can be done in virtually any environment where you are able to walk forward unencumbered for any period of time . . .
Remember, it is a practice, and the more often you do it, the more effective it will be at helping you to gain greater skill in managing and controlling anxiety and reducing trauma reactions. Once you have the hang of it, you can apply this skill in any situation at any time; you just need to be moving in a forward motion. With regular, repetitive practice, you can effectively “rewire” the circuits in your brain that are stuck in overdrive and cause you to experience uncomfortable and debilitating symptoms. It is important for you to remember that your symptoms do not have to be the controlling force in your life. With a balanced approach and appropriate strategies or treatments, you can recover your mental, physical health and well-being.
In addition to mindfulness practices, healthy personal choices, such as being gentle with yourself, physical exercise, fresh air, healthy food, and resting frequently, can offer your body and mind the moments of relief they need to tone down the trauma response over time. Simply understanding that you are experiencing both trauma and grief can be a powerful tool in your healing process. Through this knowledge, you can be more forgiving of yourself and be aware of the root of your physical and psychological symptoms. This knowledge also empowers you to seek the right kind of help and support; trauma symptoms are treatable with appropriate psychological support. Be aware of any ongoing trauma symptoms. Without correction, they can inhibit and complicate your grief.
Note: The walking meditation provided in this article is an adaptation of a similar mindfulness technique developed by Thich Nhat Hanh.
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