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The Impact of Traumatic Grief

Trauma is described as something that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope. It can be characterized by a loss of control, and feelings of chaos and horror. It is hard to imagine any event or circumstance that would exemplify this more than the recent house fire in Erie claiming the lives of 5 children.

The loss and traumatic grief associated with this tragic event has had a strong impact on our community. Our hearts ache for Ms. Overton, Mr. Jones, Ms. Facchiano, and Ms. Harris, as well as family, friends, neighbors, first responders and others in reach of this bewildering blow.

Along with the community, members of the Erie Coalition for a Trauma Informed Community (ECTIC) wish to express our sorrow to the families for their loss. Members of the Coalition recognize how important it is for our community to address and respond to the critical public health issue of trauma including traumatic grief. Often it is community resilience and support that carries people rocked by such circumstances. It is not just individual characteristics that make us strong; an environment where connection, healing and safety are present is essential.

It is very important to note that family, friends, neighbors, first responders, and others are also at risk of traumatic reactions related to what they have seen, heard or been told about the event. Everyone’s reaction to grief is unique and not everyone experiences traumatic grief. But it is important to know how to recognize and respond to traumatic grief when a circumstance like this occurs , as sometimes strong reactions will persist and interfere with a person’s functioning for many years if not addressed. Examples of these reactions include:

  • Intrusive and upsetting thoughts, images, nightmares, or memories about the way a person died that persist and arise at unwanted times

  • Physical distress and symptoms (headaches, stomachaches, fatigue, easily startled, compromised immune system, etc.)

  • Trouble sleeping, concentrating or focusing

  • Avoidance of feelings associated with the death, withdrawal, distancing, or detachment.

  • Avoidance of reminders of a person, the way the died, places or things related to them or events that led to the death

  • Increased fearfulness, harmful depression, anxiety, shame, anger

  • Negative, distorted beliefs (I am not safe anywhere, I can never be ok, I am damaged).

  • Self-destructive behaviors (substance abuse, suicidality, self-harming, excessive aggression)

  • Children may reenact through play or artwork, or demonstrate preoccupation about the way a person may have died

  • Younger children may also demonstrate regression in toileting, sleeping, eating and talking

  • Declining school or work performance

Many of these reactions are normal in the acute phase or immediate days or weeks following a traumatic death, but they may require intervention if they are persistent or severe.

Traumatic grief can be difficult to resolve and often professional help may be needed. Preparation and planning may be necessary for those strongly impacted in order to return to school or work. It is always important to maintain open communication and to talk to people and families about their wishes and preferences through their grieving. There is much a community can accomplish by creating a supportive, safe, predictable environment.

Here are just some of the other numerous ways one can help:

  • Listen and be available; don’t force anyone to talk, but encourage family discussion

  • Ask what children already know, and share information that is age appropriate (children do not need to know graphic details)

  • Prevent or limit exposure to media coverage

  • Be calm

  • Maintain healthy routines as much as possible

  • Reassure children that they are safe

  • Validate and acknowledge feelings (for children, set caring limits when necessary)

  • Watch for signs of trauma