The impact of sudden loss and catastrophic events can trigger a traumatic response blended with grief known as “complex grief.” Grief and loss expert Kathleen Parish describes complex grief as the normal grieving process with a component of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These days, kids are given training for various kinds of events. They complete drills for what to do in the event of a mass shooting. They hear about the potential violence and danger in the world on the news. Terrorist attacks, bombings, shootings, and other occurrences of mass violence flood the news with imagery of an unsafe world. While we are preparing our kids to be safe, are we addressing the potential trauma of these events? Do we understand how to deal with sudden loss following such a traumatic event?
Differences Between Normal and Complex Grief
Normal grief describes the process that a person goes through when faced with an expected loss. Events sparking “normal” grief might be surprising, yet these would be things that people could have reasonably predicted or reconcile, such as:
- Death of an elderly family member
- Death of a chronically sick loved one, such as a friend dying after months of battling cancer
- A break-up with a significant other after a long series of fights and arguments
- Losing a job after several issues at work, like disciplinary warnings or “down-sizing”
Events such as these can catch people off guard; however, they are not necessarily traumatic or shocking. While we might not expect an elderly family member to pass away at any moment, we can easily understand and accept this event after its occurrence. Breaking up with a significant other might happen during one final argument, yet we can likely reflect upon the arguments leading up to the “big one.” When a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness, we have time to spend with them before they pass on. We still process our grief and feel affected by these losses. Yet, these events might be easy to comprehend, as we might even have a chance to prepare beforehand. Our kids might experience some of these losses for the first time, yet they can usually grasp what has happened to move forward.
Complex grief, though, follows an event that we could not have predicted. The loss is sudden and unexpected, and we are blindsided. These could be events like:
- A car accident resulting in the death of a loved one
- The suicide of a friend or family member
- Catching a significant other in the act of an affair
- An overdose resulting in the death of someone close to us
- Death of friends or family due to an incident of mass violence
Following events like these, we have no frame of reference to make sense of the loss. When a young and seemingly happy person dies from suicide, the shock can be traumatic. An unexpected event like a car accident or a mass shooting can be challenging to wrap our heads around. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we might have to face the unexpected loss of a loved one due to a virus that might take their lives within days after exposure. Our kids are now dealing with a world that appears uncertain and perhaps unsafe. They might face a catastrophe and loss that no one can prepare for. By understanding complex grief, we can help kids get through traumatic losses and events.
The Complex Grieving Process
Processing complex grief can be challenging, as the person now has to deal with the traumatic shock of the event on top of the grief. When processing grief, whether normal or complex, we want to remember that we are honoring the loss. Whether we have lost someone or something through death or other circumstances, we grieve because we are honoring the importance of that person or part of our lives. According to Kathleen Parish, complex grieving can have an addictive quality. The person wants to keep that connection in their lives. They may continually repeat the story of their loss, despite how sad and traumatic the recollection is. Rather than attempting to “forget” the person or “let them go,” we can find a way to link to that loss to move forward.
Sudden loss can impact a person for the rest of their lives. We cannot just “get over” the event of the loss. However, we can continue to honor that person and move forward in a healthy way. Our kids might face some of these sudden losses in their lives. We can guide them to grieve and deal with managing the trauma of the sudden loss.
Sudden loss and complex grief can be difficult to manage. Kids today are faced with the stress of preparing for catastrophic events. While we are preparing our kids to keep them safe, we need to understand some of the complexities surrounding grief due to sudden loss. If our kids lose a friend to suicide or drug overdose, the normal grieving process is complicated by the trauma of the event. When we face a shocking and unexpected loss, we might be struggling with PTSD or trauma blended with our grief. We have no frame of reference to deal with a loss that does not make sense or follow any logical circumstances. Our kids might be facing uncertainties that we never had to deal with. If your child has experienced a sudden loss and is struggling with complex grief, there is hope to get your child back. Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center is here to help. Call us today at (303) 443-3343.