When they lost a loved one in a traumatic way
It is hard enough to know how to help a friend who is grieving the loss a loved one. But when the death was of a traumatic nature such as murder, suicide, or violent accident, it is even more difficult to know how to comfort them.
Their grief is complicated by the traumatic nature of the death, often referred to as Traumatic Grief or Traumatic Bereavement.
In addition to the common grief reactions such as sadness, sense of loss, emptiness, longing for the loved one, and irritability, those experiencing Traumatic Grief may have additional reactions including nightmares, reliving what they imagine their loved one went through, anger/revenge, guilt, or feel disoriented. If the loved one was murdered and the perpetrator has not been caught, they may be afraid of strangers or worry that they will be targeted. If their loved one committed suicide, your friend is likely experiencing a great deal of guilt and self-blame. Also, on top of the usual tasks such funeral arrangements, financial issues, and settling estates, your friend may be dealing with the prolonged process of police investigations and the criminal justice system.
How can I help?
Let them know how sorry you are for their loss and what they are going through. Just letting them know how you feel and that you care can be incredibly comforting. However, avoid well-meaning but potentially hurtful statements such as:
“I know how you feel” (non-traumatic loss is not the same and even if you lost someone in a traumatic fashion, your relationship with your loved one was different that your friend’s relationship with your friend’s loved one)
“Were there any signs?”
“Everything will be okay”
“You need to forgive”
“They’re in a better place”
“You shouldn’t feel that way”
“You can have another child”
“Time will heal all wounds”
“They shouldn’t/should have been…(blaming the victim just is not helpful).”
Let them know that you are available to listen whenever they need you. Your friend may need to talk through the event or their feelings in order to try to make sense of it but not everyone finds that helpful. Their need to talk may change over time. They may busy themselves with everything that needs to be handled in the initial aftermath of the death. However, when the dust settles, that is when they may become overwhelmed with emotion and need to talk. Their need to talk could last months or years.
Keep in touch with them but do not send texts, emails, or calls too frequently. They are likely being overwhelmed by the tasks they are dealing with and messages from others. Let them know you want to check in with them and ask how often it would be helpful for them to receive a text/email/call or if it would be more helpful to let them contact you.
Offer to help with practical tasks such as funeral arrangements, child care, preparing meals, helping with chores, writing notes, accompanying them to appointments/meetings/court, etc. If you ask “What can I do to help?” they may not know what they need so offer concrete suggestions “Can I bring over some food?” “Would you like me to go with you to court?” etc. However, do not force your help on your friend. They may be using the practical tasks as a way of coping. Also, they are likely feeling a loss of control so pushing the issue can feel controlling. Let them decide what they need in their own time.
Understand that your friend is not just trying to cope with the loss of their loved one, depending on the traumatic nature of the loss, they may also have to deal with multiple legal issues such as police investigations, court appointments, trials, and estate issues which can take years to get settled adding to their pain. Additionally, if the loved one was murdered, the perpetrator may never be found or, if found, may not be held responsible to the satisfaction of your friend, further complicating your friends grief.
Remember, even when someone is in extreme emotional pain, the intensity of that pain will wax and wane. They may feel fine one moment or stretch of time then feel the weight of their loss the next moment. They may also feel like they need to put on a false front of doing well or feel that they need to take care of others rather than themselves. Let your friend know that you are there for them.
Your friend may be trying to cope with disappointment with other friends/family members who have not been, or did not know how to be, as supportive as your friend expected and needed.
Be aware that your own grief/loss issues may be triggered even if you felt they had been resolved. It might be helpful for you to seek out help for your emotional reactions. Talk to other friends/family or seek the help of a mental health professional.
Keep in mind, grieving in general has no time limit. Everyone grieves in their own way and in their own time. This is especially true with traumatic grief.
If you have any questions about this topic or any other topic on this website,
please contact me.