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Published: 4 September 2015

Traumatic Grief and Trauma and Teenagers

Traumatic Grief

The shooting down of MH17 has brought this subject into the mainstream news over the past few weeks, and the impact that incident has caused on so many families will be felt for many years to come.

Coping with the death of an important person in one’s life is especially difficult for children. If the person died under traumatic circumstances or if the death was particularly traumatic to the child, that child may have a traumatic grief reaction.  Traumatic grief means that the person is not experiencing what might typically be seen in a grieving process, and that the grief has become complicated and the sufferer is likely to need some professional assistance.

The Typical Grieving Process

What is the typical grieving process? How is childhood traumatic grief different from the grief a child would ordinarily experience? What can caregivers and professionals who work with children do to respond to it?

There is no right or wrong way to grieve, no “appropriate” length of time to experience grief following the death of an important person. The grieving process varies from child to child and changes as the child grows older. Children’s reactions to death depend upon the child’s age, developmental level, previous life experiences, emotional health before the death, and family and social environment.

Common expected responses include:

  • Emotional reactions such as sadness, anger, guilt, insecurity
  • Changes in behavior such as aggression, loss of appetite, sleep problems
  • Interpersonal difficulties such as social isolation, clinging, irritability
  • Changes in thinking, including constant thoughts about the person, preoccupation with death
  • Altered perceptions including believing the deceased is still present, dreaming about the person

What is Childhood Traumatic Grief

Childhood traumatic grief may occur following a death of someone important to the child when the child perceives the experience as traumatic. The death may have been sudden and unexpected (e.g., through violence or an accident), or anticipated (e.g., resulting from illness or other natural causes).

The distinguishing feature of childhood traumatic grief is that the trauma symptoms interfere with the child’s ability to go through the typical process of bereavement. The child experiences a combination of trauma and grief symptoms so severe that any thoughts or reminders, even happy ones, about the person who died can lead to frightening thoughts, images, and/or memories of how the person died.

The sufferer of traumatic grief may present with other mental health issues such as anxiety, behaviour problems, becoming withdrawn, losing motivation and drive, self harming behaviors, wreckless behaviors, and substance abuse issues.

Sibling Death and Childhood Traumatic Grief

The death of someone special can be very difficult and sad for a child or teen, but when it is a sibling who dies, the family faces a unique set of challenges. Siblings often have very complicated relationships. Sisters and brothers experience a range of sometimes conflicting feelings for each other. When a sibling dies, these past relationships and feelings can affect the surviving child’s grief and the family’s bereavement process.

Traumatic Grief and Unconfirmed Death

An unconfirmed death refers to a situation in which the family does not know for sure whether the person has died and has no guarantee that the person will return. Such situations can occur during war, through kidnapping, or during natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes. In cases such as these, children may continue to hope, imagine, or plan on the person’s return, and feel guilty or disloyal when engaging in rituals such as celebrating holidays without the missing person.

The lack of certainty surrounding the death can be confusing and can mean that traditional—and potentially comforting—rituals such as a funeral cannot be observed. Unconfirmed death can also lead to traumatic grief reactions in children.

Traumatic Grief in Military Children

Since 2001, thousands of military children have had parents killed in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many other children have had siblings, cousins, and other relatives die in war. Like other grieving children, military children who experience the death of someone special under traumatic circumstances can develop traumatic grief, which can interfere with their ability to grieve and to call up comforting memories of the person who died.

Traumatic grief may also interfere with everyday activities such as being with friends and doing schoolwork.

If you or a family member need help, please contact us at Go Psychology for help. Call our 24/7 help line on 07 5580 9212 or visit our contact page.

If you or a family member need help for trauma or grief, please contact us at Go Psychology for help. Call our 24/7 help line on 07 5580 9212 or visit our contact page.

Article by Dr Paul Bowden, Clinical Psychologist and Director of Go Psychology Robina on the Gold Coast.

To assist parents and teenagers we have made this article Traumatic Grief, Trauma and Teenagers available as a PDF, you can download the article for reference purposes by clicking on the link.

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