Traumatic Grief - Beyond Charity

By Dr. Ursula Weide

Many of us have followed with sorrow the events subsequent to an 18-year old young woman losing control of her vehicle in Charles County, Maryland, while accompanied by a friend. (Washington Times, Weather Worsened before Copter Crash, 9/29/08). The Maryland State Police rescue helicopter crashed, leaving four individuals dead while the adolescent driver, also on board, was the only survivor. Our hearts go out to the familiy of the young woman but even more so to the surviving families of her dead friend, of the helicopter pilot, and of the two Emergency Medical Technicians, one of whom volunteered at the last moment to accompany the doomed flight.

Most of us will take for granted that all families having lost a loved one in this tragedy are traumatized, and that their symptoms of traumatic stress may require professional assistance, comparable to many of our vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Any police force or fire department works with professionals well-trained in traumatic stress prevention and treatment.

But what most of us continue to fail to grasp is that those whose loved one – or several of them! - died suddenly and unexpectedly, possibly the victim of accidents or violence such as suicide or homicide, a terminal illness, and often much too young, such as a child, a spouse, a partner, a sibling, a parent or other loved one, are equally traumatized and hence would benefit from the same professional approach. Since the deaths they are struggling to survive, however, are not as spectacular as the above tragic chain of events, their trauma often remains unrecognized and is belittled.

The world is replete with good how-to advice, "Just get over it!" But traumatic grief is not something we can control by an act of will. Symptoms of trauma are based on neuro-biological processes and have nothing to do with "weakness" or the "inability to get a life." Learning to live with death-related trauma requires an entirely new skill set which no one, in most instances, is prepared for without the assistance of well-trained mental health professionals and, if needed, other medical specialists.

Traumatic grief - also called complicated grief - is a major public health issue, one that society stubbornly refuses to accept. There are roughly four million deaths in this country every year, each affecting three to five survivors on the average, an estimated 20 million grievers. Most of these deaths cause sadness consequent to the loss of, for example, an aging parent, family member or friend. But fifteen percent of the grievers, three million individuals annually, are afflicted by traumatic grief.

Sadness is integrated relatively quickly but symptoms of trauma, frequently persisting for extended periods of time, such as memory loss, difficulty concentrating, a sense that the world is no longer real, the overwhelming certainty that the griever or another loved one will die soon as well, the conviction that life can not go on without the deceased, disturbing dreams and images and a host of physical manifestations belong in the hands of licensed mental health and medical professionals. Only those who have been there themselves, having had to survive a traumatic death, truly understand the ravages of having to face such a tragedy, and the effort involved in continuing to function when life suddenly has changed in an unpredictable and extreme fashion.

Whatever society does not like to confront - and death is most likely our worst fear - is often relegated to charity and charitable organizations. As a consequence, it is often volunteers without any mental health background who comfort the bereaved. Illness and death among traumatized grievers exceed by far the population average. Hence distinguishing between sadness and traumatic grief is vitally important. Charity may work for the former but the latter falls squarely into the realm of specialized professionals.

Traumatic death is all around us. The families forced to face the Medevac tragedy, also involving three line-of-duty deaths honored by Governor Martin O'Malley of Maryland, will have the choice of proper treatment. But in order to take better care of all survivors of traumatic death, we need a paradigm shift in how we approach grief. And we need to let go of the illusion that traumatic death only happens to others.

Contact Dr. Weide at

4405 East-West Hwy., Suite 310; Bethesda, MD 20814 Tel. 240-229-1893
801 N. Pitt Street, Suite 108; Alexandria, VA 22314 Tel. 703-548-3866