One of the many painful types of trauma is that of tragic loss. Tragic loss, in this sense, occurs when a loved one unexpectedly dies or is killed, be it by an acute health condition, suicide, crime, accident, or natural disaster.
Witnessing the tragic death can be particularly traumatic, but one doesn’t have to see the tragic death in person for it to have long lasting effects; even those who did not witness the event may be plagued with visions of what they imagine happened.
When tragic deaths continue to have a lasting impact on our lives, they frequently involve many similar symptoms, including flashbacks or intrusive thoughts of the tragedy, difficulty sleeping and/or nightmares about the event, strong feelings of guilt, increased anxiety and/or panic attacks, persistent low moods, suicidal thoughts, and a pessimistic view of others or the world itself.
The good news is, these symptoms don’t have to last for the rest of your life. Working with a skilled therapist can be extremely helpful in reducing the frequency or eliminating these symptoms altogether. While many therapists will differ in their approach and styles to treating trauma from tragic loss, these five components are important keys to helping you overcome the symptoms holding you back.
1. Remind yourself that it wasn’t your fault.
When tragedies happen to other people, we often look for someone to blame; all too often, that person is yourself. You may imagine things you could have said or done differently that would have caused the person to be in a different place at the time of the tragedy, or have encouraged them to seek emergency help for their condition. No matter the particular mental gymnastics you perform to blame yourself, the truth is that we all operate using the wisdom and experience we have gained up until that time, and can hardly be expected to predict when a tragedy will occur.
The most frequently occurring tragedies are accidents, acute health events, and homicides, none of which the victim planned to experience, nor could you have predicted. Accepting that the tragedy was not your fault, and that they are an unfortunate part of life, can help you to overcome the guilt associated with being a survivor of tragic loss.
2. Accept that life contains rare, unpredictable events that cannot be prepared for.
Practicing acceptance that life involves rare events outside of our control and that we cannot prepare for, plays an integral role on the road to recovery. Taking into account all types of death, 0.00002%* of the population die on any given day. Yet when we have experienced a tragic death personally, we begin to devote a disproportionate amount of time and worry to thinking about either ourselves or our loved ones dying tragically. Someone running late must have died in an accident; someone not returning a phone call or text must have died of a heart attack. You’re relieved when you find out you were mistaken, and that the person either worked late or wasn’t able to respond at that time, but how much time did you put yourself through severe distress?
These extreme levels of stress are toxic to our physical and mental well-being, and spending unnecessary time thinking about them robs us of our vitality. Albert Ellis once said “We are what we think”, and if we spend our time frequently thinking about devastating tragedies that may or may not happen, we will wind up being in a state of constant anxiety.
3. Cherish the positive memories you have of the person.
Losing a loved one is never easy and losing a loved one to tragedy can make the grieving process even more difficult. Intrusive memories of our loved one’s tragic end, feelings of anger over their having been robbed of a full life, and a feeling of emptiness that they are no longer around can persist long after our loved one has passed. An unfortunate truth about our minds is that we cannot prevent the onset of intrusive thoughts and feelings such as these.
What we can control, however, is how we react to these initial intrusions. Through practice and effort, you can train yourself to transition these initial unpleasant intrusions into cherished memories of your loved one. The mind has difficulty maintaining more than one emotion at a time, so focusing on your cherished memories of your lost loved one and the good they brought to you while they were alive can change your emotional response to be positive rather then negative.
It will take time and practice to make this the default setting for your brain, but it will eventually become easier and easier until it is essentially automatic.
4. Focus on the present moment.
This may sound like simple advice, but our minds are constantly pulled away by intrusive thoughts about the past and the future, taking our attention away from the reality of our daily life. By learning to focus on the present moment, we can become more in tune with the things that are going well in our everyday life.
You can practice focusing on the present moment through mindfulness meditation, a type of meditation where you attempt to pay attention to a specific sensation, and then notice when your attention drifts and gently bring your focus back to that sensation. Practicing this type of meditation makes it easier to focus your attention on the here and now, which in turn can help you appreciate the good things you have in life.
5. Remind yourself of the good things in life that you have.
Being able to focus on the present moment is helpful if you’re able to focus on the good things rather than the negative things in life. Most people’s lives are filled with a variety of positive, negative, and neutral experiences on a daily basis. When you’ve experienced a tragic loss, you may develop a tendency only to focus on the negative experiences in life, a process known as mental filtering. One way to overcome negative mental filtering is to recognize that you are experiencing it.
Another is to use what’s known as a Positivity Journal. In this journal you would write down at least 3 good things that happen in a given day. In this way, you train yourself to focus on the positive everyday experiences that you are having, and recognize that not everything is as dire as it may seem. Studies have shown that for people experiencing depression, this journaling works best if done daily at first until you have overcome your negative mental filtering, and thereafter only a few days each week in order to maintain its effectiveness.
These five tips are the key strategies I use in my own practice with clients who have experienced a tragic loss. My hope is that by sharing them you will be able to improve the rate of your own healing. Everyone processes loss at a different rate, so don’t be alarmed if you feel that you have not recovered as fast as you expected to, and recognize that there are trained professionals willing to help you along the way.
*Statistics calculated from 2016 Causes of Death from CDC (https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/leading-causes-of-death.htm)