About Traumatic Loss

Young OnesTraumatic Loss is very different from other types of loss. Although no one can really state if one is more difficult than the other, Traumatic Loss can be much more complicated and take much longer to work through. Throughout my work with clients and in hospice and hospital settings, I have experienced many people going through Traumatic Loss.

Traumatic Loss is difficult to define, as each person has an individual perception about the trauma they experience. Trauma can be defined in many ways, but for the purpose of this passage, I define Traumatic Loss as any loss involving violence, suicide, homicide, witnessing the death of another person, accident which causes loss of life or loss of functionality, natural disaster, and terrorism or other similar acts.

            No matter what the loss, the brain puts the person in a shock state. This means that the brain is protecting the person from the reality of the situation. The shock can feel like a numbness, or even a haziness or cloudy feeling. Its purpose is to keep the person able to function in a basic nature until the brain feels that the person is ready to “work through” some of the issues surrounding the grief.

From my work with clients, as well as my own personal experiences, it seems that the brain does know when the person is able to work through the grief, and the haziness starts to fade. The shock phase can last anywhere from two to four months, and usually is exceeded when there is a Traumatic Loss. (Please note that there is no firm time limit or duration to any part of grief, and that depending on each person’s circumstances, the period when shock diminishes can be shorter or longer.)

            A client of mine and her husband were riding their bicycles in their neighborhood when a car turned too quickly and hit her husband, sending him flying head-first into the pavement. My client described the experience as “surreal, like time stopped” and as she lay there holding her husband in her hands, “things seemed strangely clear”. I consider this the shock that her brain put her in to deal with the immediate needs of her husband at the time of the accident­­­­. In the days following the accident, my client reported a “numb” feeling, and that she was “going through the motions but not really thinking about what I was doing”.

            Many clients speak to the shock part of grief, stating that the “first few months were fine, and then I don’t know what happened”. As the brain starts to work through the feelings and emotions, the shock and haze begin to fade, which leave the possibly difficult emotions that clients struggle to work through. The next eight to 15 months following a loss are spent with the client working through all the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the loss, as well as the task of re-defining oneself and one’s life without their loved one.

It is in times like this that the Cardinal Experience can happen. During these times, people are searching for meaning, symbols, and some way of connection with their loved one despite the loss. Of course, for Traumatic Loss, the time period can be longer and can be much more complicated. People can talk of a wide variety of feelings and emotions including anger, sadness, relief, vengeance, loneliness, and so forth. The feelings noted above are only a few of many possible ones. (Remember that grief can also take on physical forms as well such as headaches, stomach or bowel issues, and muscle or joint pain).

            Throughout my work with various clients immersed in many different forms of grief, all expressed some desire to find meaning, and/or a symbol of their loved one to hang on to. Many people discussed their struggle of going through their loved ones belongings, and the painful feelings that would come up for them. But they also discussed how it was bittersweet to find something that might seem relatively meaningless to anyone on the outside, but that symbolized a bond that the person had with the person who died. Many times, clients would discuss wanting something tangible to hold on to as a reminder of their loved one and the connection they had with them. Another thing clients frequently discussed with me were the “living symbols” that they experienced.

For example, many clients found birds or butterflies to be this symbol of their loved one “visiting them” from time to time. I found it interesting as a therapist that there was a connection between almost all of my clients in this experience, and that the symbol was something that flies. How did these winged creatures symbolize the connection between the living and the dead? Perhaps it was because the bird or butterfly would come and go freely without the restrictions of a cage. Perhaps it was because the bird or butterfly connected the earth with the sky, a phenomenon that as humans we are unable to accomplish unaided. On more than one occasion I had clients mention a cardinal, a red bird that would visit them from time to time, that they felt was their loved one “checking” in on them.

            With Traumatic Loss, this desire for symbols remained the same. It was overwhelming to me as a therapist the similarities of what clients were telling me, despite the differences in how they had lost their loved ones. One client of mine, who lost her husband to suicide, described seeing “a red bird out of nowhere, I think it was him, just wanting to see how I was doing”. This client looked forward to the cardinal visiting her and felt that it was a way for her to remain connected to her husband. She even stated that she would sometimes talk to the bird as though it were him, telling the bird about her day and that she missed him.

            Because there are so many questions that can go unanswered when we lose someone, it is natural to want to try to find answers in any place that we can. This is especially true for a homicide or a suicide death. Often the survivors of these losses will blame themselves for “not seeing the signs” of a suicide or “not being around” to save the person. Often in my practice I have seen people look for a sign from their loved ones that “forgives” them for these supposed faults. The Cardinal Experience for these people can be especially touching. While there may not be a 100-percent resolution after a Traumatic Loss, your life will forever be changed and you will come out a different person.

People can find meaning and purpose in their lives, and often find that they take on a “cause” or “mission” in honor of the person that they lost. These causes can be healthy or not so healthy, and it is important for people to try to distinguish a healthy cause from and unhealthy one.

For example, a healthy cause could be joining a suicide-prevention network to assist others who have had suicidal thoughts. On the other hand, a cause that might be destructive to proper healing would be to “go after” people who resemble the person who killed your loved one. Both are completely understandable causes, especially during your grieving period; however, one may leave you feeling more frustrated and lost, while the other could help you direct your grieving energy into a place where positive outcomes can be realized.

            I always encourage my clients to try to find something to eventually “pour their grief into”. That is, something that would not only help them keep their loved one’s memory alive in them, but also something for the survivor to do. I have realized though many years of practice that people need things to do to actively remember their loved ones. Whether it is going on a cancer-fundraising walk, planting a tree, going to the cemetery, or finding meaning and sharing their Cardinal Experience, all of these are healthy ways to grieve and to help keep that memory alive. 

I constantly hear people talking about how they don’t want to be forgotten when they die, and that they don’t want their loved one to be forgotten either. These are ways to ensure that people’s memories will live on. Because the cardinal is alive, it often symbolizes even more, almost like an embodiment of the spirit of the loved one, or a messenger of some sort. Perhaps this is why the cardinal has such a strong meaning for the many people who have experienced it. 

--Larissa Humiston, MSW, LCSW  

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