Dedicated to Understanding Grief

Howard Lunche, MSW, LCSW

COMPLICATIONS TO GRIEF - Stigmatized and Traumatic Deaths

It is unfortunate that some deaths are considered shameful and unworthy of grief and mourning. Deaths by suicide, drug overdose, AIDS, and smoking are a few that give rise to societal judgments associated with mental illness, weak character, religious beliefs, sex, living a bad life, and bringing this fate upon oneself.

It is common for the bereaved to be reluctant to disclose the true cause of death when it will bring judgment and shame to the deceased and family. We may be hurt and angry when others nullify the loss based on stigmas. Shame, guilt, ambivalence, confusion, and anxiety can be pronounced depending upon the degree to which we believe in these same societal values.

As with other complications to grief and mourning, anything that keeps us from facing what is true about the death and our loss can become a barrier to the natural healthy cycles of grieving. We may not receive the acknowledgment and validation for stigmatized deaths, thus limiting support for our grieving and mourning.

What is true, of course, is that the cause of death does not change the fact that someone significant to you has died and is gone from your life. The importance of the person who died is not diminished by the cause of death. In fact, the cause of death may increase the severity of the impact of the death, necessitating help above and beyond normal societal supports.

Traumatic circumstances associated with a death are another complicating factor for grief. Though many people feel they have experienced trauma in some sense, “trauma” as used in this discussion pertains to the clinical usage, and refers to circumstances, experiences, and symptoms that fit the criteria for diagnosable Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

Deaths that involve tragic, horrific circumstances beyond common daily experience are known to increase the likelihood of post-traumatic stress symptoms. These symptoms fall outside the norm for grief reactions. Being part of, witness to, or confronted with details about accidents, suicides, murders, catastrophes, and other violent deaths can cause survivors to suffer from serious and persistent disruptive symptoms.

Persistently re-experiencing the traumatic event, persistent efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, activities, places, and other stimuli associated with the trauma, persistent symptoms of increased physiological arousal, a sense of numbing, detachment, derealization, and distress sufficient to cause difficulty with daily functioning, and other symptoms are associated with a traumatic experience. Though some of these symptoms may be similar to those experienced within common grief reactions, it is important to remember that post-traumatic stress symptoms are persistent and severe to a degree beyond common grief reactions. Professional help is strongly advised for traumatic death situations. A professional experienced in treating trauma in addition to grief and bereavement can assist you with your recovery.

Read more about Complications on the following pages.

Complications to Grief | Alcohol & Drugs | Conflicted Relationships | Multiple Losses | Risk of Harm | Stigmas and Traumas | More Reading