How Emotional Trauma Affects Everyday Interactions: Sudden Loss

This week, we have been discussing the subject of trauma-- Not the obvious kind of trauma that occurs due to a natural disaster or global catastrophic event, but the more subtle kinds of trauma that often go unrecognized.  These subtle forms of trauma impact our lives emotionally, though we often times might not recognize that is what we are experiencing. 

Today, I will discuss the trauma that results from sudden loss.

How can experiencing the sudden loss of a loved one cause trauma? 

No matter what the age of the survivor, suddenly losing someone you are close to can shatter one's sense of security and cause them to feel intense fear, in addition to their grief and sadness.  It's like everything you have known about safety, comfort and stability in your world suddenly feels shattered, disrupted and foreign, leaving a huge void in it's place.  One day your loved one  is there, and in a brief moment they are suddenly gone with no warning or goodbye's.  Because there is no time to prepare emotionally, losing someone suddenly can cause a feeling of intense vulnerability and abandonment. It can cause you to fear the loss of other loved ones and strong feelings of anxiety or dread-- like something bad is going to happen again.  Sudden loss can be such a traumatic experience because your brain is trying to make sense out of what suddenly happened ("How can this be true?  He/she was just here this morning, and now they are gone without warning... How could this have happened so quickly?"), while simultaneously trying to process feelings of sadness and grief over the loss.

How do you know if you are experiencing a trauma response to sudden loss?  Most grief and loss includes experiences of remembering certain things about a loved one and re-experiencing sadness in the months or years following their death.  For example, missing your Mother on Mother's Day or feeling sad on the anniversary date of her death.  A trauma response is similar to this, but can be intensified and can manifest in ways that don't always seem directly related to the loss. 

For example, 15 years ago, my father (who we thought was perfectly healthy and in shape) was rushed by helicopter to a major hospital shortly after he was experiencing symptoms of a heart attack.  I had just talked to him on the phone a couple of hours prior to this happening.  By the time I reached the hospital where he was flown, 4 hours away, he had already passed away.  For the next several years, the first time I would see Christmas lights, I would experience this overwhelming sense of sickness in the pit of my stomach and waves of intense sadness would come over me-- almost like a milder form of what I felt when I drove to the hospital the day he passed away.   I would also experience a general sense of anxiety or unease with other things, like seeing hospital signs, when the weather became cold or snowy for the first time that season, or from certain smells or sounds.  My body and mind were in too much shock to consciously associate seeing Christmas lights with the drive to and from the hospital the day he passed and relate them to my experience--  but after the shock wore off, my body and brain were recognizing them as symbols and connecting them to an intense emotional experience I had gone through.  The same with certain sounds, smells, or the weather.  I am grateful to have known what this was all about, because it allowed me to make those connections and continue to process what those things were really triggering for me emotionally, which helped me grieve the loss. 

If an individual can't recognize that they are having triggers, it can cause them to block their feelings, feel like they are going "crazy", sink into a depression, or begin to avoid things to feel better.  We generally see a look of relief on our client's faces when that association or connection is made-- almost like they can now give themselves permission to grieve because it finally makes sense! This helps to prevent feeling stuck in the grieving process and getting to a more manageable place of acceptance for the loss.  

Other forms of sudden loss, such as losing a child to SIDS, losing a friend or loved one to a violent crime or homicide, or losing a loved one from a suicide, can all cause a trauma response.  It's difficult to go through something so traumatic, but it's even more difficult (if not impossible) to try and do it alone.  Grief is such a private thing, but sharing your story with others is a powerful form of healing.  Everyone's experience with this kind of trauma is different, based on the circumstances of the sudden loss you have gone through.  A healthy support system and professional counseling can help to work through the trauma of these experiences, and help you recognize that you aren't alone.

Recommended Reading:

I Wasn't Ready to Say Goodbye, by Pamela Blair, Ph.D.;    Living With Grief: After Sudden Loss Suicide, Homicide, Accident, Heart Attack, Stroke, by Kenneth Doka.

Joleen Watson, MS, LMFT, NCC, is a therapist at Imagine Hope Counseling Group. She enjoys doing marriage counseling, relationship counseling, couples counseling, and individual counseling.  Imagine Hope also specializes in family, child and adolescent counseling and serves Indianapolis area including the surrounding areas of Carmel, Noblesville, Zionsville, Westfield, and Fishers.