Grief is a tricky process. Most of us have seen or heard of the stages of grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Seems simple enough. Right? Not so much. What is not always clear about the grieving process is that it’s not linear. It’s more like a jumbled up mess inside our head and our hearts. We find ourselves circling these various stages all in one day. Heck, if I’m being honest, this can happen in one minute. Grief is complicated. It’s painful. It’s confusing. Grieving is hard enough without adding trauma to the mix.

If you’ve experienced a traumatic loss, such as a sudden loss, the loss of a child, a violent loss, or a loss by suicide, then you may find yourself getting stuck in the grieving process.

The term traumatic loss can also be confusing. What is a traumatic loss? Here is one definition by Wortman & Latack (2015):

“A death is considered traumatic if it occurs without warning; if it is untimely; if it involves violence; if there is damage to the loved one’s body; if it was caused by a perpetrator with the intent to harm; if the survivor regards the death as preventable; if the survivor believes that the loved one suffered; or if the survivor regards the death, or manner of death, as unfair and unjust.”

This is a helpful definition but as you see it’s not black and white.  Even by this definition a traumatic loss is not only defined by the way the person died but also by the perception, experience, and interpretation of the person who has experienced the loss.

This is important to keep in mind to prevent us from comparing losses or disqualifying the experience of suffering from a loss just because we don’t think it counts as ‘traumatic’.  If feels traumatic to you, then it was.

What is grief and what does healing after loss mean?

When we talk about grief, we’re referring to the experience of our reaction to one’s experience of the loss, which often is associated with pain and sadness (Shapiro, 2001). Healing after a loss involves adapting to a “new normal” without your loved one. To heal does not mean to “move on” or to “get over” the person who has died.  Rather it means to adjust to life without this person, which will most likely continue to be sad, but as it becomes a part of our new normal we are able to remember them with love instead of only pain.

So how can the experience of a traumatic loss impact grief?

The various traumatic aspect of the loss can get stuck in our head like a series of freeze frames.  These memories along with the sights and sounds that go with them can get dysfunctionally stored in our brains. When these memories are triggered, a flood of pain and suffering are experienced.  These traumatic memories that are dysfunctionally stored disrupt our ability to adapt to life without our loved one (Shapiro, 2001). We then get stuck in the trauma and our grieving process comes to a halt, preventing us from healing.

How EMDR can help

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is most widely known for treating PTSD or Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder, however, it is also very effective in treating and healing from a variety of experiences.  Additionally, a traumatic loss can result in symptoms and/or a diagnosis of PTSD.  This article references a study in 2003 by Murphy, Johnson, Chug, and Beaton that looks at the bereavement trajectories of parents who suffered the violent death of a child.  They found that five years after the loss 27.7% of mothers and 12.5% of fathers met criteria for PTSD, which is 2-3 times higher than the normal population.

EMDR can help those anchored in the traumatic aspects of the grief resume healthy mourning by helping to unstick the stuck parts of the loss.  Through this many people can resume a healthy grieving process and remember positive memories of their loved one(s) instead of focusing on the traumatic memories (Shapiro, 2001).

Signs that you may be stuck in the trauma include but are not limited to:

  • Reliving the loss
  • Extreme feelings of guilt
  • Intrusive thoughts or images
  • Nightmares
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Ruminating thoughts about their death

If this resonates with you and you feel like you’re grieving process has stalled, you are not alone and EMDR may help. In searching for a grief therapist, I recommend finding someone who also has experience working with trauma and traumatic loss.  Be gentle with yourself and know that I am so deeply sorry for your loss.

Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

One thought on “Stuck In Grief? The Ways Trauma Can Halt The Grieving Process And How EMDR Can Help”

  1. Ricky says:

    Your hoetsny is like a beacon

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