By Odessa Despot, PsyD
-Trigger warning: This article contains references to violence and loss which may be triggering to survivors. The warning is posted in order to help readers recognize and manage their feelings.
Traumatic loss, such as the sudden passing of a loved one, is one of the most difficult events that a person can experience. The change is immediate and permanent. Reactions to this kind of loss can take any or all of these forms: shock, denial, anger, worry, fear, sadness, numbness, helplessness. In some cases, a delayed reaction might even occur (This can’t be happening). When the loss is violent—as in the case of the young Guyanese man who was recently murdered or the woman who was fatally stabbed by her husband in December, coping becomes even more challenging. Law enforcement, news media, insurance companies, and litigation, impact the process of grief and mourning for the victim’s family.
Traumatic loss affects us at every level. Biologically, it affects our bodies. People sometimes experience heart racing, increased breathing, trouble sleeping, trouble eating, and emotional dysregulation with periods of crying, anger, numbness. Psychologically, it affects our thoughts, feelings, actions: Why did this happen? How can he be here one day and the next day be gone? The world has no meaning. The world is no longer a safe place. Where is god? The combination of these factors can change or transform how we see ourselves, how we relate to others, and how we live our lives afterward. Some people withdraw and isolate, question their faith, and question their sense of belonging in this world. Others remain silent and/or numb for periods of time. Some of these feelings and thoughts are expected. Depression, anxiety, development of eating disorders, substance use and other illnesses however, can develop in response to the stress of traumatic events. When these disorders are present clinical intervention with a trained professional is usually indicated.
I once treated a young woman who suddenly lost her boyfriend. She was in therapy with me for about a year and a half and in that time I witnessed her re-live the days before his death, make peace with it and become angry that it had happened—again and again. In sessions we explored what her life was supposed to look like, how the two of them were supposed to share their lives together, and what her life was like in the present. She worried about the future and whether she could trust in love and relationships again. The suddenness of his death led to panic, worry and racing thoughts about her own purpose in this world. She would wake up at night wondering, “What’s the point of this?” She was haunted by regret over how things had been leading up to his death: I wasn’t there enough, I didn’t call him that day, I should have been there. The loss of meaning in her life and feelings of self-punishment intensified her struggle: What have I done to cause this? Am I deserving of this pain?
My patient will likely never forget the loss of her loved one—that was not the focus of our work together. As her therapist I joined her in the exploration of the painful parts of that loss, offered support as she confronted and accepted them, and found a meaningful way to integrate the memory of her significant other and his loss into her life. She recovered as best as she could, in the way that only she could do.
Recovery from grief and traumatic loss is a process, and one that is difficult to cope with alone. If you are affected by a traumatic loss consider reaching out to a counselor, trusted friend, or support system (family, church, community agency, neighbors). If you are trying to help someone through grief and loss—be patient, try checking-in with the person, tell them that you are there to support them, and whenever possible, be ready to listen.
Odessa Despot, PsyD is a clinical psychologist and has worked with patients experiencing acute and chronic mental health conditions. She currently works as a staff psychologist at Rochester Institute of Technology. She was the former Secretary on the Board of Directors of Indo-Caribbean Alliance, Inc.