Mind Matters — The Universality of Traumatic Grief

I am writing this on August 29, the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating blow to the Gulf Coast and New Orleans. I had been pondering what my topic would be for September for awhile and then my eyes lit upon a book that recently arrived: A Grief Like No Other: Surviving the Violent Death of Someone You Love by Kathleen O’Hara.

I ordered this book because I facilitate a support group sponsored by the Mental Health Association in Delaware for Survivors of Accident and Murder (hence named SAM groups). SAM is not privileged membership—no one wishes they or anyone else belonged in its ranks, yet these groups mean a lot to the people who attend because it is there that they can find comfort and solace from others in similar situations.

No grief is an easy process: the pain of losing a loved one is almost always overwhelming at first, precipitating an onslaught of feelings once the initial shock subsides. However, traumatic grief is a double whammy. The suddenness and the violence in such cases complicates the mourning process.

We may have experienced traumatic grief in our own lives or may have witnessed it in friends or co-workers. Be advised that any grief—especially traumatic grief—is not something one “gets over in a few months.” It takes years for the mourner to come to a “new” normal after the “old” normal has been so shattered. To make meaning out of life again is a formidable challenge.

Sometimes the trauma and grief can become so overwhelming that the person collapses into depression, substance abuse or physical illnesses. We have seen this on a national level after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. We are beginning to see the traumatic ripple effects of Katrina-Rita in the Gulf States.

But the ripple effects of traumatic grief are not an American phenomenon. They are universal. It is a blessing that we can empathize with the plight of the Katrina-Rita victims, for example. This indicates that we have allowed ourselves to care beyond the boundaries of our own families and friends. However, we need to develop our caring awareness even further so that we recognize that traumatic death and devastation, whether they are caused by natural disasters, or by the mass violence of human conflict—bombings and violence, inflicted either by legitimate nations or by rogue terrorists—have the same end result: traumatic grief.

Take a moment in your busy day and dwell on this: There are people suffering from traumatic grief all over the world. Imagine a world where suffering Israelis could be reaching out to suffering Lebanese or Palestinians, where suffering whites could reach out to suffering blacks, where divorced and embittered ex-spouses could reach out to each other and empathize with their traumatic grief over the loss of a soldier son.

Traumatic grief can drive a wedge of resentment and blame or it can foster awareness of how much we are in the same boat of human frailty. The latter is our best hope for a saner and safer world.