When The Death is By Trauma

When death is unexpected and traumatic, your sense of reality is destroyed and everything feels out of control. A sense of disbelief can overwhelm and paralyze you. Not only must you cope with the death of your loved one, but the cause of death as well. Your normal coping abilities are overloaded. Sherry Williams White helps you understand those feelings and provides concrete coping strategies to help you deal with your grief.

by Sherry Williams White

The death of a loved one can be traumatic, but there are circumstances such as suicide, homicide, an accident, natural or man made disasters which make the stress of grief even greater. When a trauma occurs, your normal coping abilities are overloaded. The intensity of your grief reactions can be severe.

Emotional Experiences

When death is unexpected and traumatic, your sense of reality is destroyed and everything feels out of control. A sense of disbelief can overwhelm and paralyze you. Not only must you cope with the death of your loved one, but the cause of death as well.

You may feel numb at first as you try to learn as much as you can about what happened. Unanswered questions can add to your pain and confusion. The shock which initially protected you gives away to frustration, fear or anger.

The world no longer feels safe to you. If murder, accidents or drunk driving can occur where you live, anything can happen. Returning to the part of town where the death occurred, or anywhere similar, may be upsetting. Your basic assumption about the predictable, controllable world that is fair has just been shaken. You may think you are going crazy. You're not. When your reality has been shattered, your sense of security shaken and innocence destroyed, it is natural to be afraid.

Your anger may be so intense that it is frightening. Anger can turn to rage as you wrestle with the unfairness, the sense of injustice and the unanswered questions that seem to multiply. You may feel cheated, betrayed or helpless.

You may be questioning your faith and find yourself angry with God. You may be consumed with guilt because you were unable to help your loved one. The "If only" and "I should have" thoughts can attack at any time. You may feel like you are moving in slow motion and finding yourself sliding into feelings of despair as you realize there is nothing you can do to change what has happened.

A sense of helplessness can lead to frustration and you may finally burst into anger as you confront the medical, legal and moral issues that surround trauma. Don't be surprised if your grief resurfaces and intensifies as you wind your way through the judicial system and realize there is no justice that will bring your loved one back.

You are being bombarded by a wide range of emotional, physical, psychological, social and spiritual trauma. Your body is reacting automatically through chemical and hormonal changes. Your body is adjusting to a new reality. In addition to the normal stresses in grief, trauma usually results in one or more reactions: 

Hyperactivity or agitation:
You may experience a need to pace, or move around a lot, and not be able to pinpoint why you are restless.

Frozen apathy or indifference:
Some people react by becoming paralyzed and unable to express emotion or communicate with others. Many people would describe this as shock. Usually shock only lasts a short time. When the reality of the death sets in, you react in other ways.


This includes very detailed dreams that involve the senses such as sight, smell or sound and may include night sweats and waking up with an acute sense of anxiety.

Hypersensitivity to sound:
You may be oversensitive to noise and find that you can't tolerate certain pitches or sound levels. You may become startled at sudden noises or disturbances. It may take your body several minutes to calm down when you hear an abrupt or loud sound.

Flashbacks (seeing the incident over and over):
These experiences are often total sensory reactions (you smell, hear, taste and even have a vivid visual recall of the incident).

Fearful anticipation:
You may be overwhelmed with an intense fear of terror for no specific reason. You may want to surround yourself with people or run away and hide.

Difficulty making decisions:
Your concentration may be poor and the little things you do each day become big. Deciding what to have for lunch or what to wear can be overwhelming.

Amnesia for the event (for those who saw a traumatic scene):
Your mind can sometimes block out events which are too horrible to recall. This is a way to protect yourself. Do not be alarmed if this happens. In time, you will remember.

What To Do Now?

  • Take care of yourself physically. If you find you cannot sleep, try to rest. Just putting your feet up and sitting quietly can relieve your stress. If you find yourself wanting to sleep to avoid the pain, force yourself to walk even if it is for short intervals. You can also do some simple stretching exercises as you sit in your recliner.
  • Try taking deep breaths. Just three deep breaths can do a lot to change the flow of hormones and reduce your overall anxiety level.
  • Eat healthy. Avoid complex carbohydrates and caffeine. Eat protein snacks such as cheese, peanuts and peanut butter and crackers. Drink at least 6 glasses of water daily. Eat less more often.
  • Be realistic in your expectations of yourself and others. Grief takes time so try to be patient with yourself and others.
  • Don't try to lessen the pain with drugs or alcohol. They only provide temporary relief and can intensify the grief later.
  • Be as informed and knowledgeable as possible. Learn the facts.
  • Don't focus on rumors. Get your questions answered by reliable sources.
  • Assert yourself. Ask for what you need. If you don't have the energy to do that, get someone to be your advocate.
  • Find ways to release emotions in safe, non-destructive ways. Scream in the shower or in the basement or into a pillow. Pound a hammer, knead bread dough or hit tennis balls.
  • Focus on only one worry or issue at a time. This can help combat feelings of being overwhelmed.
  • Share your thoughts and feelings with others. Keep a journal. Find a support group. Find someone you can talk with.
  • Remember life requires effort on your part. Work at lifting depression.
  • Don't be afraid of questioning your faith. Talk to your clergy. Remember that it is through questioning your faith, that it becomes stronger. In searching for answers, you will find hope.
  • Be kind to yourself. Learn to forgive yourself.
  • Find ways to memorialize your loved one. Plant a tree, create a scholarship fund, or organize a memory walk.

Seek Help
Don't be afraid or ashamed to seek help. It is a sign of strength that you can reach out to take care of yourself and your family. Ask your funeral director, clergy or health care professional for referrals.

Your loved one has died. You may feel consumed by the details and trauma of the death for a very long time. It is easy to focus entirely on the circumstances of your loved one's death but don't ever forget their life. When your heart feels heavy with grief, lighten the pain with memories of the life and love you shared. Don't let the trauma of the event rob you of the love of your relationship. Grief takes a long time, but love lasts forever.


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