WILL TRAUMA GRIEF COUNSELING HELP?
By Janice Harris Lord, ACSW
Sudden death in the military isn't the same as an anticipated death. That's why "stages of grief" and books about grief following illnesses or advanced age seldom make sense after a traumatic death.
Those who don't know better may say, "Well, when he signed up for the military, everyone knew that this could happen." Yes, most families consider the risk, and, at the same time, pray and expect that their loved one will return home safely. Email, phone calls and other "real time" communications add to your assurance that your loved one, whether at training or in combat around the globe, is fine.
Military deaths come suddenly to those who are young and fit and serving their country - which makes their loss all the more difficult to comprehend because they are at the prime of their lives and ready to meet all the challenges that come their way. Military families sometimes think, because they are proud that their loved ones died while serving their country that they should not grieve - or at least not grieve deeply. That isn't so. It is not an "either/or" situation. You can be proud that your loved one served our country and, at the same time, deeply mourn all that you have lost.
Trauma death differs from other types of death in some critical ways and, not surprisingly, a survivor's reaction can differ too. Unlike most deaths from natural causes your loved one's death may have been:
- someone's fault or even intentionally caused by someone else;
- sudden and unexpected;
- involved terrible harm to your loved one's precious body; and/or
- happened very far away.
All of these factors can make grief work following a loved one's death more complicated.
It is not easy to decide if or when you need the help of a trauma grief counselor to help you with your grief. Most people find that counseling is helpful, even if they feel they could get along without it. Counseling certainly will not hurt you if your counselor has some understanding of trauma following the sudden, violent death of a loved one and is committed to treating survivors with dignity and compassion.
Trauma grief shares many symptoms with clinical depression:
- Appetite changes
- Sleep disturbances
- Physical aches and pains
- Decreased sexual desire
- Loss of energy
- Inability to concentrate
- Need to withdraw
These trauma grief symptoms can be misdiagnosed if the counselor is not fully aware of what you have experienced. Some counselors are not aware that natural grieving often becomes clinical depression, particularly if the death is traumatic. Just as you take medicine to help you with the flu, high blood pressure, or diabetes, it is fine to take medicine to help soften trauma grief symptoms as well. Many of these symptoms can be significantly eased with small doses of antidepressants that can be prescribed by your primary care physician or a psychiatrist. The newer ones do not make you feel groggy or zombie-like. In fact, it may take several days or weeks before you feel their effect. Even then, you may not feel anything dramatic. You just realize that it is easier for you to sleep, to get up feeling refreshed, to get through your work day, and to enjoy some of the things you enjoyed before.
Other common reactions among trauma survivors include:
- Unanticipated periods of crying (grief spasms);
- Dreams and flashbacks;
- Anger that is difficult to focus;
- Difficulty deciding what to do with mementos, clothing and other possessions of the deceased;
- Deep sadness, including irrational death wishes such as homicidal or suicidal fantasies; and/or
- Fear and anxiety, particularly about getting out in the community alone.
No one knows for sure how long you should grieve, how many symptoms you should expect, or how intense a particular symptom will be for you. We do know that for most people, the grieving hurts and it lasts a long time.
On the other hand, it is crucial for you to realize that you will feel better over time. Time certainly does not "heal all wounds," but it does promote healing.
Anne Lamott says it well in her book, Traveling Mercies.