Secondary Trauma & Grief

The word trauma is used in many different contexts, and it has recently been more of a topic of conversation in recent years. When people think of trauma, the typical images that may run through their heads are of war veterans, sexual abuse survivors, or even other kinds of abuse experienced. However, I believe that the population of caregivers as well as loved ones of those who are battling a deadly disease or severe medical conditions experience a trauma that does not get noticed enough. This is what can be termed secondary trauma, when one learns about the traumatic experiences of a loved one. Try painting this picture in your head: sitting in a hospital room beside the hospital bed for days in and days out with no end in sight, having not much to do other than observe your loved one in pain while they are in the hospital or at home, as well as even possibly having to dedicate all your time to care for your loved one.

Unfortunately, my family recently experienced a significant loss. My stepbrother, who was battling cancer since November of 2015, had passed away on Christmas Day. His battle with cancer is one that will never be forgotten by those who surrounded him. My stepmom and dad were his caregivers throughout the whole process. As a mental health counselor, I was keen on observing the impacts his battle with cancer had on them. For the sake of their privacy I won’t divulge, however the countless sleepless nights as well as hospital visits speak for themselves.

What are grief disorders?

Our reactions to bereavement vary from person to person, everyone has their own way in which they react to the loss of a loved one. Grief disorders come into play when an individual is experiencing prolonged as well as complex grief symptoms, these symptoms are typically more challenging for the individual to live with as well as may cause significant impairments to your normal functioning. 

Some symptoms that are consistent with complex grief are: excessive irritability, consistent insomnia or sleep difficulties, intrusive thoughts about the loss, feelings of futility, as well as having a strong sense of responsibility for the loss. These are just a few of the symptoms that correlate with complex grief; it should be noted that if you are experiencing these symptoms and if they are lasting more than two months after the loss, it can be a signal of a prolonged grief disorder. 

The Impact

It can go without saying that in these kinds of circumstances, we have someone who is ill and may be getting traumatized in the process as well as a caregiver or family member watching all of this play out in front of them, can have a significant impact on how we are perceiving this kind of trauma. I believe that this statement describes the experience of caregivers and loved ones during this time, “for some caregivers and loved ones, watching the death of someone close to them, while making no attempt to stop it, can be excruciating and lead to shock and extreme emotional distress,” (GoodTherapy). 

Intrusive thoughts are common when talking about mental health and discussing our emotions. Intrusive thoughts are simply thoughts that enter the mind unwillingly that cause some sense of discomfort, or they can be images or impulsive urges that pass through your mind. In a situation like this, it is common for people to have constant intrusive thoughts about the person who has passed. Those who have a history of addictive behaviors may resort back to old unhealthy habits, and it’s even possible for one to develop a fear that is related to the loss in some way (i.e. if the death was caused by a car crash, a fear of driving may develop). 

Why is it so complicated?

The history of it all. It’s true, the history that one has with the one who has passed can impact the way that they experience grief. Whether that history is traumatic, joyful, distressful, or filled with unforgettable memories, each has a unique way of causing a domino effect. For example, if the one you have lost was a significant factor in your trauma history it may be difficult for you to wrap your head around how to grieve this individual. Feelings of confusion, conflicting emotions, feeling alone in the grief, as well as feeling guilty for holding negative feelings/thoughts towards who has passed. We see you, and it’s okay to be going through all of these emotions and barriers.

Ultimately, it is up to you to decide how you want to experience grief and how you would like to progress on the path of healing, if needed. Your family may have their own words and ways of going about the loss, but this is not something that needs to be conformed to or feel as though you should be matching the level of emotions of your family members. No. It is your journey. It is your life to drive forward. It is your time to take care of yourself, and if you start questioning the reality of you being able to take care of yourself or if you have hesitations about doing so; just remember how much you have cared for your loved one and pull that energy inwards and direct it towards you.

Grief and loss is unfortunately something that we all come to know all too well. Even with that, it still feels like getting hit with a ton of bricks whenever it happens. Throughout our lives, we make connections, friendships, relationships with people that are not forgotten. It is important not to remember your loved one as they were during their last struggling moments, but to remember them by how they were around you.

– Conor Ohland, MHC-LP