Chapter 2: Why your grief may be different

If you have experienced trauma

I've been there
Jennifer shares how she felt she would not survive the loss of her son and how she has built resiliency and strength through grieving. (3:22)Video transcript

It’s very complicated. There was all the suffering before he died, so we were already exhausted. And then there was the death. Sometimes we barely have the energy to put one foot in front of the other. There’s not enough recognition for that kind of long-term suffering and stress.The trauma and physical impact of those years was terrible. My brother was not treated well by healthcare or other family members. He was not treated like he was a valuable person who deserved kindness and love.

A traumatic response can result from any situation that exceeds your ability to cope and leaves you feeling overwhelmed or out of control. Even if you had been expecting or thought you were “prepared” for the person’s death, you may still experience shock and disbelief. You may also feel traumatized by the long-term impact of what you witnessed in the person’s life, such as hardships, illness, injuries, or bodily harm.

Trauma affects everyone differently. You may or may not have felt traumatized by this person’s life or death, or you may have found ways to deal with trauma such that it hasn’t stayed with you.

Click on the box below to view different causes and responses to trauma.

A traumatic response to a death may be the result of factors such as:

  • The circumstances of the person’s death.
  • Circumstances leading up to the death.
  • How you received information about the death.
  • What you did at the time of death or immediately afterwards – for example, calling 911 or performing CPR.
  • How you imagine the death happened or how the person experienced it.
  • If you had to travel some distance to get to the place (town, city, country) where the pers on died .

If you experience a trauma response, you may notice that you are:

  • Reliving or re-experiencing elements of the event, usually through nightmares, flashbacks, or intrusive images that seem to surface randomly. You may feel as if the traumatic event is actually happening again. 
  • Taking extraordinary measures to avoid reminders of the traumatic event. You may find that you cannot tolerate certain people, places, or activities because they remind you of what has happened.
  • Feeling a heightened worry for your safety or that of others (e.g., not leaving home, feeling as though you need to know where others are at all times).
  • Experiencing negative thinking and/or moods. For example, you may feel like no one can be trusted or that the world is completely dangerous. You may also feel fear, horror, guilt, self-blame, and/or detached from others.
  • Feeling increased anxiety, on edge” or jumpy, feeling irritable, possibly with angry outbursts, or easily stressed about things that wouldn't normally bother you .
  • Being hyper-vigilant and easily startled or always at the ready for the next very bad thing to happen.
  • Feeling the urge to self-medicate with substances as a way to escape reality and grief.
  • Having nightmares or night terrors, or simply having difficulty getting restful sleep. 
  • Feeling especially anxious or worried about the safety and well-being of other people you care about.

What may help

  • If youre having a very intense and overwhelming response to this death, keep in mind that this is a normal reaction to something unexpected and very difficult.
  • Acknowledge thoughts and feelings to yourself and to supportive people in your life.
  • Try to find a balance between focusing exclusively on intense thoughts and feelings and allowing yourself to be distracted by pleasant or relaxing activities.
  • Notice activities or people that seem more comfortable for you, and make an effort to do those things or spend time with those people.
  • It may seem that every single moment of every day is intensely painful. Try to observe how your grief changes, even minutely, throughout the day.
  • Be as gentle, kind, and patient with yourself as you can. See if you can slowly spend time with anything youve been avoiding. Start with whatever has been least distressing and work your way up to what is more difficult.
  • Some people find that regular breathing exercises or meditation techniques can be helpful for them. Try a guided session to see if this is right for you.



If you or others around you are concerned that you may be “stuck” in intense feelings, it is important to get specialized support. A trained counsellor or therapist can use carefully structured strategies to help you cope with distressing thoughts, feelings, and memories.