Trauma and Loss

Trauma and Loss

Trauma is a term that describes an emotional, physical, and psychological response to an extremely stressful event that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope. Examples of traumatic events include:

  1. Witnessing or experiencing a shooting
  2. Terrorism
  3. Natural Disasters
  4. Serious accidents
  5. Physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence/intimate partner violence
  6. Sudden loss of a loved one

Experiencing the sudden, unexplained death of a child is not simply a loss – it is both a loss and a trauma.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Sometimes in the aftermath of a trauma, an individual can develop symptoms that can linger for several months or even years. Often, a person develops Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, in the wake of a trauma.

The criteria for PTSD includes:

  • The person was exposed to death, threatened death
  • Actual or threatened sexual violence

As follows:

  • Direct exposure
  • Witnessing in person, indirectly by learning that a close friend or relative was exposed to trauma
  • Repeated or extreme indirect exposure to aversive details of the events, usually in the course of professional duties (i.e. first responders, counselors/therapists/social workers, etc.)
  • Symptoms of PTSD are as follows:
    • Intrusion Symptoms
      • Recurrent, involuntary and intrusive thoughts and memories of the event
      • Traumatic nightmares
      • Dissociative Reactions (i.e. flashbacks), which can occur on a continuum from brief episodes to complete loss of consciousness
      • Intense or prolonged distress after exposure to traumatic reminders
      • Marked physiological reactivity after exposure to trauma-related stimuli
    • Persistent avoidance of trauma-related stimuli
      • Trauma-related thoughts or feelings
      • Trauma-related external reminders (i.e. people, places, things/objects, smells, situations, conversations, activities, etc.)
    • Negative Alterations in Cognitions and Mood that began or worsened after trauma exposure
      • Inability to recall key features of the traumatic event
      • Persistent, and often distorted, negative beliefs about oneself and/or the world
      • Persistent, distorted blame of oneself or others for causing the traumatic event or the resulting consequences
      • Persistent, negative trauma-related emotions (i.e. fear, horror, anger, guilt, shame, etc.)
      • Markedly diminished interest in pre-trauma significant activities
      • Feeling alienated from others (detachment or estrangement)
      • Constricted affect – inability to experience positive emotions
    • Trauma-related alterations in arousal and reactivity that began or worsened after the traumatic events
      • Irritable or aggressive behavior
      • Self-destructive or reckless behavior
      • Hypervigilance
      • Exaggerated startle response
      • Problems in concentration
      • Sleep disturbance

To qualify for a PTSD diagnosis, symptoms must be present for at least one month. Prior to one month, if some or all of the above symptoms are present, this is generally diagnosed as Acute Stress Disorder.

The information above is for educational purposes only. If you think you may be experiencing PTSD, it’s important to consult with an experienced therapist, clinician, psychiatrist, social worker, or psychologist who can accurately diagnose you and discuss options for treatment.

For more information on trauma and PTSD, visit The National Center for PTSD.

Post-Traumatic Growth

While families have experienced the trauma of child loss, there is also the potential for long-term growth. Post-Traumatic Growth is a term that describes the positive changes that can occur after experiencing a trauma. Though a trauma can negatively alter our thoughts about ourselves and the world, Post-Traumatic Growth describes how these changes can also be positive.

Recognizing the internal strengths and growth process in an individual should never minimize the pain of the trauma experienced. In fact, we often have to handle both simultaneously even years after the trauma has occurred.

For more information on Post-Traumatic Growth, please visit the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Department of Psychology’s page on Post-Traumatic Growth.