5 Stages of Grief in Trauma Recovery

TRIGGER WARNING: Trauma is an important, but difficult and sensitive topic that may remind you of your own experience(s) and trigger psychological, emotional and/or physical responses. As you’re reading through our October Trauma Series, I strongly encourage you to take extra special care of yourself and don’t hesitate to reach out to a licensed mental health professional or other trauma specialist if you feel overwhelmed by an inability to cope with any triggered responses.
 “Healing doesn’t mean that trauma never happened. It means that it no longer controls your life.”

Dear Friends,

Last week, we identified the four people (behaviors) that trauma produces. Today, I’m reviewing the five (5) stages of grief in the trauma recovery process. Let me begin by saying that grief is something you never overcome; it’s something you endure. However, what was once a painful memory can eventually evolve into acceptance and a better psychological, emotional, and physical state.

Recovery does not mean that you return to life as you knew it. Recovery means regaining physical, mental and emotional health and embracing a new normal. Although there are generally five stages involved in processing trauma, grief and loss, recovery is not a linear process. Sometimes, you may feel that you’re taking two steps backwards for every one step forward.

If I were to characterize the trauma recovery process, I would say that it is all about the journey and not the destination. Recovery isn’t some big event; it’s a journey of continuous discovery, growth, and improvement and may happen unconsciously. Recovery looks different for each person, so you cannot compare your process to anyone else’s. Most important is the individual progress that you make—which is likely to include mistakes and setbacks, so be gracious and patient with yourself.

Stage 1: Denial

The Denial Stage helps you to process what is happening or has happened by slowing your understanding to allow you to pace your emotions and gradually recover over time. This stage is characterized by shock, numbness, disbelief, and protective mechanisms that support that disbelief. It’s difficult to accept the event or loss so it’s common to deny or minimize it.

Stage 2: Anger

During the Anger Stage, your psyche tries to find a rationale for why this event or loss occurred, and shock and numbness is replaced by anger, rage, and resentment. During the initial stages of recovery there is often no logical or acceptable answers, so this lack of sense making causes pain, which is experienced and projected as anger, rage, and resentment. You may be angry at yourself, the situation, or the loss.

Stage 3: Bargaining

In the Bargaining Stage, you think in terms of “what if” or “if only”. You’re willing to do virtually anything to delay or change the loss, so you attempt to barter for the return of whatever was lost or is in the process of being lost. For example, after a breakup you may try to convince your former partner to return to relationship. For a life-threatening diagnosis, you might seek an unlikely or unpopular cure. You might even try to make a deal with your former boss to get your job back after being terminated. Bargaining stems from your desire to return to your life before the loss. Thus, your focus is on scenarios that could have potentially prevented the loss.

Stage 4: Depression

Eventually bargaining gives way to the Depression Stage after the realization of the loss sets in. This stage is characterized by persistent sadness and sorrow; changes in appetite, sleep, and energy; feeling guilty, empty, and hopeless; difficulty concentrating; or a lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed. It’s also common for you to cry, grieve, and isolate yourself during this stage. Different types of depression require different types of treatment. A licensed mental health professional can assess the type of depression you are experiencing and suggest treatment options.

Stage 5: Acceptance

The Acceptance Stage is a logical acknowledgement of the event or loss, and you are now able to control most of your associated emotions. This does not mean that you agree with the loss, but you realize that nothing can be done to change the outcome.

The length and severity of each stage is heavily influenced by the type of event or loss experienced. Life is filled with heartbreak, pain, experiences, and lessons, so I want you to know that your trauma is VALID. Regardless how tough we are, trauma always leaves a scar. Your past has not destroyed or defeated you, because you’re still here.

3 Recovery Tools You Can Implement Now 

  1. Journal writing can play an important role in healing from trauma, grief, and loss—and you do not have to be an avid writer. Journaling offers an opportunity for deep reflection to identify strengths and challenges. A journal provides space to process your thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and understand your relationship with trauma, grief and loss; it provides a means to regularly review and track your progress; and it serves as a mechanism to help build your resilience to effectively deal with future traumatic events.
  2. Writing a goodbye letter to the person or thing that you lost. Indicate how the event impacted and changed you. Articulate the lessons, benefits, or gifts that resulted from the loss. Express your feelings and emotions about the event. Identify what you miss and share your memories. Explain how you have grown from your grief journey (or how you want to grow), as well as how the lessons of the trauma, grief, and loss process continue to shape you and your life. Then, say goodbye.
  3. Remembering the good is an excellent way to heal from trauma, grief, and loss. Don't be afraid to give yourself permission to remember what you have loved and lost. Remembering for good is an understanding of the difference between remembering and ruminating. You can also remember for the good of others by sharing your wisdom and being an inspiration. Remembering can also be a unique way to navigate your recovery journey. It's a recognition that you know how to live wholeheartedly, even after a traumatic event. You can trust the part of yourself that knows this to guide you through the situation.

This concludes our month-long trauma series. There is a LOT of information to be shared regarding trauma recovery, and I've only covered the tip of the iceberg. I hope you have found the information covered over these past four weeks enlightening and now feel a bit more confident about navigating the adversity in your own life. Remember that recovery from trauma, grief, and loss is an ongoing process. Do not allow anyone to rush you through as your recovery unfolds as it is designed to and takes as long as it takes.

There's a saying that some storms come not to disrupt our life, but to clear our path. Be gentle with yourself, know that you are never alone, and keep putting one foot in front of the other as you live wholeheartedly and thrive… even in the face of this and future challenges.

Until Next Time,

Dr. Mary

P.S., To learn more about trauma, grief and loss, check out our self-paced mini e-course, Through the Fire: Understanding, Finding Meaning in & Coping with Trauma, Grief & Loss, which includes a complimentary Course Companion Journal.

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