Chapter 2: When grief and trauma come together

What is trauma?

The grief expert says
Esther talks about how trauma changes the way we see the world.(3:22)Video transcript

The accident was horrific. I still don’t know how – or why – I survived.

The words “trauma” and “traumatized” are sometimes used in everyday conversation to describe somewhat upsetting events or encounters. However, when someone describes, for example, writing an exam as traumatic, they likely are not referring to trauma in the way we’re discussing it here.

Trauma is any event or experience that is highly distressing and stressful, and that overwhelms your ability to cope. It is not only the nature of the event or the experience that makes it traumatic, but also how you interpret and experience the event.

In general, trauma causes a nervous system response, putting your body and mind into fight, flight, or freeze mode. This is often referred to by the terms traumatic or trauma response. Sometimes, your body can become stuck in this mode and your ability to respond, or cope may be impacted. 

The word trauma is often used by people to describe both the event or experience that was traumatic as well as their response and what they are experiencing.  Whether or not a person becomes “traumatized” is subjective meaning that it depends on their own feelings and experiences. Different people may respond differently to the same event.

More information on differences in trauma responses is found in Chapter 2 of this module.