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What Is Traumatic Grief and How Can I Cope With It? Part 1

I work with many clients who have experienced grief in their life. Whether it is a loss of a family member, loss of an event in their life, loss of a relationship, or maybe a loss of someone they cared about who unfortunately passed away in a traumatic way. My job as my clients’ clinician is to help identify terms for them, such as traumatic loss, with the hopes that identifying terms, the client and I can then collaborate with each other on coping mechanisms that feel meaningful to them. 

What exactly is a traumatic loss? I recently read an article from the website Funeral Basics titled, “7 Tips for coping with traumatic grief in which the article discusses what grief, trauma, and traumatic grief is according to Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a nationally recognized grief counselor, author, and educator.

  • What is traumatic grief? Dr. Wolfelt first defines grief to be “an instinctive human response to loss” and then he defines trauma as a “psychological, emotional response to an event that is deeply distressing or disturbing.” ‘Traumatic grief’ is when you lose a loved one in a way that was traumatic such as a natural disaster, car crash, shooting, etc. 
  • Dual Challenge. Coping with traumatic grief creates a dual challenge in which you are coping with trauma while also coping with grief. Dr. Wolfelt states that for most people struggling with a traumatic loss, they will feel the impact of trauma before feeling the impact of grief. Interestingly enough, Dr. Wolfelt says the impact of the trauma response including feelings of shock and disbelief will actually protect you. The reasoning behind that is because it allows you to experience the trauma separated from the grief as opposed to both feelings at once. 

Below describes Dr. Wolfelts’s suggested coping mechanisms when dealing with a traumatic loss.


  • Be patient with yourself. I often explain to clients that grief is one of the most powerful emotions one may experience in their life and while there are 5 stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), those stages are incredibly fluid. You may circle back to different stages. That being said, it is crucial to be patient with yourself when going through any form of grief. If you attempt to “speed up” the process, it will likely just make you feel even worse. It is important to give yourself time to explore your feelings. Some explore their feelings through journaling, prayer, meditation, a trusted friend, or a grief counselor.
  • Self compassion is key. It is not an easy process to cope with grief already, so being mean to yourself during the process will certainly not make it any easier on yourself. For some, coping with grief can last days, months, or even years. Although the impact of the grief may lessen over time, it will likely resurface on anniversary dates, such as the day your loved one passed away or their birthday. Due to the complexities around coping with grief, it is important to be kind to yourself and practice overt forms of self care. Engaging in any form of self care is paying attention to your emotional and physical needs which is imperative when coping with grief. 


Part 2 of this blog post will explain the remaining 5 coping mechanisms when coping with traumatic grief: don’t run or be scared of your feelings, it’s okay to replay the events, be mindful of PTSD symptoms, express your thoughts and feelings, and reach out to a mental health specialist. 

Grieving is not easy, be sure to pick the coping mechanisms that you feel are most therapeutic for you.   

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