When a child dies, for example, our sense of the natural order of things is turned upside-down. We feel a deep sense of unfairness and sometimes guilt that we are still alive. We might also experience feelings of hopelessness about a future without the child. These natural thoughts feelings complicate our grief journeys.
Below you will find a number of special death and loss circumstances that tend to complicate grief. If you are grieving a loss associated with one of these circumstances, you are at risk for complicated grief. This means that your symptoms of grief (your thoughts and feelings) will be especially difficult and you will probably need extra support.
“Seeing a skilled, compassionate grief counselor is always a good idea for people who are struggling with grief, but it’s an especially good idea for people affected by traumatic types of loss.
“This does not mean that anything is wrong with you or your grief! On the contrary, it simply means that you are having a normal reaction to an abnormally extreme situation, and so you need extra help.” — Dr. Alan Wolfelt
As a result of fear and misunderstanding, many survivors of suicide are left alone and in silence when what you desperately need is unconditional support and compassion. You suffer in a variety of ways: one, because you grieve the loss of someone significant to the meaning of your life; two, because you have experienced a sudden, usually unexpected traumatic death; and three, because you may be shunned by a culture unwilling to enter into the pain of your unique grief. What you need and deserve is unconditional love, not shame or judgment over your feelings or the decision made by your loved one.
While the grief that follows a loved one’s suicide is a powerful, life-changing experience, so, too, is your ability to help facilitate your own healing. I invite you to gently and slowly, over time, confront the naturally profound pain of your grief. Work on expressing your thoughts and feelings as you experience them and being kind to yourself. Active, open mourning will lead you into and through the wilderness to a place where you will come out of the dark and into the light. A suicide grief support group and/or compassionate grief counselor will be able to help you process your grief and move toward healing.
Accompanying Article: “Exploring the Uniqueness of Your Suicide Grief”
Read the book: “The Wilderness of Suicide Grief”
Sudden, violent death
After someone you care about dies a sudden, violent death, you are forced to struggle with both the traumatic nature of the death and your grief over the loss. Naturally, traumatized mourners often find themselves replaying and reconsidering over and over the circumstances of the death. This is both normal and necessary. Such replay helps you begin to acknowledge the reality of the death and integrate it into your life. It’s as if your mind needs to devote time and energy to comprehending the circumstances of the death before it can move on to grieving the fact that this person will no longer be part of your life.
Both your feelings of being traumatized by the circumstances of the death and of losing someone you care about must be expressed. Talk to the other survivors. Be open and understanding, as not everyone will have the same response. Because your grief is naturally complicated, you will probably find it helpful, even necessary, to seek out extra support. A support group comprised of others affected by violent death and a skilled grief counselor are two resources that can make all the difference.
Accompanying Article: “Healing Your Traumatized Heart”
Read the book: “Healing Your Traumatized Heart”
Grief is what you think and feel on the inside after someone you care about dies. Your grief will naturally be complicated by the cause of this death.
If the person who died was young and otherwise healthy, that fact will affect your grief. We typically feel a sense of injustice and a stolen future whenever a young person dies.
We also often feel anger when deaths are caused by behaviors. You might be mad at the person who overdosed, at others whom you perceive enabled the behavior (such as a drug dealer), or at medical staff or police who may have been involved.
You might also feel guilty that you weren’t able to help the person stop using drugs before it was too late—even though the behavior was outside your control.
Whatever your complicated thoughts and feelings may be, your task now is to express them in healthy ways.
Accompanying Article: “Helping Yourself Heal When Someone You Care About Dies of a Drug Overdose”
Someone you love served, and died, in the military. The unique nature of your loss colors so many aspects of your grief journey. From the circumstances of the death to the way you were informed about it to the military protocols for burial, supporting the family, and more, your experience has probably been unlike any non-military deaths in your life. What’s more, people who die in the military are often young and healthy. When a young person dies for any reason, we naturally struggle with the out-of-order nature of the death. If the death was violent, this, too, will have a large effect on your grief. You may even be experiencing a form of PTSD.
When someone dies while serving in the United States armed forces, those who love them and grieve their death have a special place where they can find comfort and care, hope and healing. The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, helps family members and friends come together to remember the love, celebrate the life, and share the journey. They are available 24/7 through the National Military Survivor Helpline, 800.959.8277.
Read the book: “Healing Your Grieving Heart After a Military Death”
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a term used to describe the psychological condition that survivors of sudden, violent death sometimes experience. If someone you loved died a sudden or violent death, you might have nightmares or scary thoughts about the terrible experiences your loved one went through. You may feel angry and untrusting. You may be on the lookout for danger and get upset when something happens without warning. Your anxiety levels may be high.
If you are experiencing them, these are other symptoms of PTSD will have a big effect on your grief. If you think you may have PTSD, talk to your family doctor or a counselor. You may need therapy and/or medication for a time to help you feel safer and cope with your day-to-day life. You will need to get help with your PTSD before you can deal with the rest of your grief and mourning.
Read the book: “The PTSD Solution”
If you have been affected by a natural disaster, you are grieving. Even if your home, your belongings, and your loved ones were spared, if your life has been touched by a tornado, hurricane, flood, earthquake, fire, drought, or other natural disaster, you are grieving. After all, you have lost your sense of safety. You have lost trust in your surroundings and perhaps your community’s emergency response systems. You may have lost community assets you treasured or relied on. You are probably wrestling with why, philosophically speaking, natural disasters happen. You may have personally lost property and even human life.
The good news is that your grief can be integrated into your life. You can learn not only to cope, but to heal. Talking about your thoughts and feelings with others is the best way to begin to process your grief. You might also be helped by a support group or grief counselor.
Read the book: “Healing Your Grief When Disaster Strikes”
When someone we love dies, it is always difficult. But when we experience several significant losses within a relatively short period of time, we are at risk for loss overload. Loss overload means that even if we have generally grieved and mourned in healthy ways and were always self-sufficient, now too many losses have accumulated for us to grieve and mourn them all at once. We become overwhelmed and may experience anxiety, panic, depression, and other symptoms that make it hard for us to function.
If you feel like you may be suffering from loss overload, I encourage you to seek the support of an experienced and compassionate grief counselor. Rest assured that you are having a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances that would overwhelm anyone’s capacity to cope. Seeing a counselor will provide you with the structure, guidance, and compassionate listening you need to survive this challenging time.
Read the book: “The PTSD Solution”
Grief is a natural and necessary response to the many losses we encounter in our life journeys. And the only way to truly and fully heal from grief is to express our thoughts and feelings about loss as they arise in us over time. In other words, to mourn.
But many people never express their grief as they experience it. Instead, they “carry” it. Carried grief accumulates over years and decades and causes life-affecting symptoms, ranging from difficulties with trust and intimacy to anxiety, substance abuse, and depression. If you may be suffering from old, unmourned griefs, I urge you to see a skilled grief counselor. They can help you recognize and work through your carried grief, giving you the opportunity to live a better life from here forward.
Accompanying Article: “Living in the Shadow of the Ghosts of Grief: An Introduction”
Read the book: “Living in the Shadows of the Ghosts of Grief”
Be gentle with yourself if you are grieving during the holidays. Don’t over-commit. It’s OK to skip traditions this year if you are not up for them. Also, look for ways to blend honoring the person who died into your celebrations. For example, you might decorate a special tabletop Christmas tree with photos and memorabilia of your loved one, or make the person’s favorite holiday cookies and share them with those who miss him. Mourning and celebrating can go hand-in-hand, for both are essential parts of life.
Accompanying Article: “Helping Yourself Heal During the Holiday Season”
Read the book: “Healing Your Holiday Grief”