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Responding to Traumatic Death

December 21, 2017
Emmetsburg News

by Sandy Pelzer

"No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in." - C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Traumatic death (sudden and/or random, unexpected death due to an accident, suicide, or homicide) is one of the most difficult, painful human experiences. The impact is felt throughout the community, and can shatter our foundational beliefs. The citizens of Palo Alto County have responded to the recent devastating events with amazing strength, and yet the impact of these losses will last a lifetime. Many have been asking "what can we do?" and "how can we help?" Others have asked, "Is what I am feeling normal?" or "I think I am going crazy." The following is intended to provide additional information about this topic.

Many of us are already aware of the most common responses to grief, as established by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her famous book On Death and Dying. Those reactions (we used to say "stages of grief") are: Shock, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. While these reactions certainly exist following a traumatic death, a traumatic death brings with it additional challenges because of the violent nature of the death. There is a wide range of normal reactions to traumatic death, and no two people will be the same. Some of the most common reactions to traumatic death include:

Numbness, unable to feel. Feeling hallow inside, unable to connect with our emotions, either negative or positive. We feel cut off from ourselves and others. We are unable to focus or concentrate on any topic for too long.

De-realization or De-personalization Feeling as if you are watching yourself or "going through the actions" without truly participating in your own life. Some people experience a feeling of not being in their own body, as if living in a dream or nightmare. This may include weird sensations or perceptions, called "grief hallucinations." It's important to know that you are not crazy!

Re-experiencing or re-playing the event over and over again in your mind, in an endless loop. Our brain is trying to make sense of the situation, and figure out what we could have done differently or in some way change the outcome, although our "logical" brain knows better. Even if we were not with our loved one when he died, our brains can create images that make us feel as if we were there. We can be triggered by reminders in the environment and feel like we are right back there, just when we felt a bit better.

Fear and Anxiety The world feels like a very unsafe, unpredictable place. All of the sudden, our world is shattered. We may have difficulty trusting others. We may need to sleep with the lights on, we may become "touchy" or startle easily, or avoid things that we associate with the death. Sometimes the fears or anxiety can seem completely unrelated to the death, such as a child who is suddenly afraid to use the toilet without mom or dad. Other times we avoid the places or people that remind us of the death.

Anger. Angry reactions are a common reaction to loss, and can range from being irritable to violent rages. We may have a hard time understanding why we are snapping at our kids, or don't have patience at work. We may be angry with ourselves or blame someone else.

Guilt We may feel guilty that we somehow caused the death. "If only I had" or guilty for being alive, for surviving. Young children may have illogical guilt, "It's my fault because I asked to go to the store, and then the bad thing happened." Guilt that "I didn't get to say good-bye." "I didn't get to say 'I love you."

Sadness Sadness can be overwhelming at times, and may come-and-go, or sadness may be like a heavy fog that never lifts. We may feel sad about future losses. Losses of future graduations, weddings, grandchildren, and so forth.

Physical Symptoms Upset stomach, headaches, gastro-intestinal problems, rashes, cold sores, fever blisters, or aches and pains without an obvious cause. We may be more susceptible to colds and flu.

So what can we do to help ourselves and others?

Do's

Think about your own health. Practice self care. Eat healthy, get rest when you can, go for a walk. Exercise (20 minutes, 5 times a week for maximum benefit).

Talk and talk. Share your story again and again, it helps move the brain out of shock and towards acceptance.

Keep a schedule or routine. Be patient with yourself when you are unable to accomplish things. Keep a "to do" list or reminders to help with focus and concentration problems.

Be honest about your feelings. Acknowledge the difficulties, celebrate the small joys.

Develop or strengthen a spiritual or religious practice that is comforting to you and helps you heal.

Things to Avoid:

Avoiding. Avoid isolating yourself from others. Avoid keeping your emotions to yourself, or "not burdening others" with your thoughts and feelings.

Too much of anything - Alcohol. Nicotine. Caffeine.

Maintaining an appearance of "strength." Be gentle with yourself, you expect more from yourself than others expect from you.

Blaming yourself.

Seeing yourself as weak. Judging yourself as weak or inadequate or abnormal.

Asking "Why?" or "What if..?" A more helpful question is: "Now that this terrible thing happened, what can I do?" "How can a live the best life I can and find healing and meaning?"

Pushing religious beliefs onto yourself or others.

Rushing yourself or others to feel better. There is no "normal" timeline for grief. Rather, it is a process each of us must experience at our own pace.

How to Begin to Heal:

In a recent blog post on GriefSpeaks.com, Carl and Stephanie Simonton provide the following formula for effective healing or finding a"new normal:"

25% Self

20% Spouse/Partner/Intimate support person

55% Environmental Supports

By environmental support, they refer to friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, clergy, health care providers, counselor/therapist, volunteer works, pets, art, music, dance, bereavement support group, sports, prayer, meditation, travel, massage therapy.and whatever else in your environment that is helpful for you. Few of us have a completely developed support system, and if we rely too much upon self or our partner, we may delay our healing process.

Each person's healing will look different, according to your unique needs and personality. A recent trauma may re-ignite past traumatic experiences, and you may have to process a past loss as part of your new grief. Stay in the present moment, and consider what may help in the moment or today. You don't have to have all the answers or a long-term plan. Start with a single act in the present moment.

When should I seek professional support?

If you or someone you love is feeling hopeless, the symptoms are getting worse over time, or unable to resume daily activities, professional support may be helpful. If you or someone you love is thinking about suicide or self-harm, seek assistance immediately. Suicidal thoughts are considered a medical emergency and require immediate treatment go to an emergency room or call 911. Complicated grief responds to mental health therapy, and there is no timeline (such as 6 months or one year) when to seek support, rather it is a personal choice. Often, those around you may recognize the need for treatment before you do. Listen to those around you, and if someone you trust is saying, "I think you need more assistance than I can give," take it seriously.

Know that in the weeks and months and years to come, professional assistance is available:

Sandy Pelzer, Julianne Klesel at Catholic Charities in Spencer and Algona (712) 580-4320

Kari Anderson and Samantha Graham at Hope Haven in Emmetsburg (712) 852-3101.

Michelle Theesfeld and Heidi Schmidt at Seasons Center in Emmetsburg (712) 852-2922.

 
 
 

 

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