Traumatic grief can cause dramatic changes in behavior, mental health experts say
At Mike Smith’s home in Bainbridge Township there is a special notebook he keeps in his office.
“Actually I haven’t gone back to this in a long time, but I would write a journal,” he said.
In 2016, Smith, 62, lost his 24-year-old daughter Hillary to a drug overdose. He wrote letters to her months after her death.
For a while, Smith blamed himself for not preventing Hillary’s death, and he didn’t know how to talk to anyone about it.
“If some accident happened, people can relate to that," he said. "But then when you talk about addiction, it just brings up a flood of things for people like, 'What was wrong with your daughter?'”
He says for a month he felt paralyzed, unable to really eat or sleep. He went to his job and then disengaged.
People like Smith who lose a loved one suddenly may experience what’s called “traumatic grief.”
Traumatic grief is a lot harder to overcome than other kinds because the unexpected loss of a child is different than the loss of a grandparent, said Robyn Hill, a mental health therapist in Cleveland.
“We treat it as if that's normal loss," she said. "We expect them to grieve it normally.”
Much of the public doesn’t realize the underlying impact of trauma in grief and what can happen if it isn't processed, said Kent State University Professor of Psychological Sciences Angela Neal-Barnett.
“There are a small amount of people [for whom] the intensity of the grief remains over time, and it wreaks havoc on their emotional, on their physical and their social being,” she said.
The stress brought on by a traumatic loss can affect relationships and trigger a mental health episode, said Hill. That can be exacerbated if people don’t allow themselves to feel their emotions after a loss.
“There's a heightened stress response going on in the body, which affects your immune system, as well as affects cognitive functioning," she said. "These are things you just cannot see. These are phantom things that doesn't show up until later in life.”
Cornerstone of Hope bereavement specialist Julia Ellifritt said she sees people dealing with traumatic loss who feel and may act as if nothing matters.
“There's this sense of, 'I don't really care what happens to me. If I die, I get to go to heaven and be with that person sooner, ' so there's risk-taking behaviors," she said. "There's this, 'I don't care what happens.'”
Feeling like you can’t live without someone is common among grieving people, said Ellifritt. But if someone expresses the desire to harm themselves, it's time to call a crisis hotline.
There are a lot of places to get connected for grief support — funeral homes, hospice providers, grief centers and therapists, experts said.
Recently, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the definitive handbook used by therapists, added a new designation for a disorder called “complicated grief” or prolonged grief disorder.
Those with prolonged grief disorder may experience intense longing for the deceased or preoccupation with thoughts of the deceased most of the day and nearly every day for at least a month, according to the American Psychiatric Association. The bereaved will also experience clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning.
To help those experiencing any kind of grief it's important to show up and just listen, said Neal-Barnett.
“People who have lost children and they want to talk about their child and the moment they mention the child's name, you can see people in the room squirming and putting their heads down and averting their eyes because we don't know how to talk about it,” she said.
Smith, whose daughter died of an overdose, was able to overcome his traumatic grief by meeting with a support group run by Cornerstone of Hope. There, he talked with four other parents who lost their children to a drug overdose. They understood, he said.
Their counselor had them interview people about their memories of their children.
“It helped to redirect my thinking toward the good in my daughter, in how she was meaningful to so many people," said Smith. "What they shared had nothing to do with addiction. It was just about her as a human being.”
Today, Smith keeps reminders of Hillary around him.
“I have a hairbrush... with her hair still in it. I have toys that I entertained her with when she was a child. And so those are the kinds of mementos I have of her. They're always close by me.”
Smith said he'll always feel the loss of his daughter, but he wants others who are grieving to know healing is possible.
If you are having thoughts of suicide or experiencing overwhelming distress, call 988.