Survivor Grief Reactions


Traumatic grief is different from other types of grief. A violent and sudden death can cause especially strong feelings in a survivor. A variety of emotions may also arise from the manner in which their loved one was killed, and not just the death itself. Additionally, survivors may experience delays in their grief process due to investigations, trials, appeals, etc. 

Trauma is an event that overwhelms an individual’s capacity for coping. Grief is an emotional response to death. Trauma impedes the grief process and grief makes processing the trauma difficult. For instance, frustration may run high for survivors when law enforcement fails to make an arrest, when plea bargains are made or when offenders are repeatedly considered for parole. For some survivors, attending trial proves too difficult a task due to the traumatic details presented in the proceedings. Another factor, which cannot be underestimated, is the power of public opinion.

 Homicide investigations often take place in the public eye and unfortunately, society’s tendency to “victim-blame” can leave survivors feeling helpless, exposed, deserted or ashamed. Each person is different, and each will experience grief in ways that are unique and personal. Each situation is unique as well. However, knowing about typical reactions in these unusual circumstances can help you cope with the painful feelings of grief. 

Sometimes people expect to go through stages of grieving. They expect to “be over” a certain stage after time. Although 6 we can describe stages in the grieving process, it is a mistake to expect any person to follow them closely. Stages of grief are better described as fluid. You may skip over stages or stay in one stage for an extended period. 

The following information describes some common reactions to homicide. You will see there is a wide spectrum of feelings. There is no right or wrong way to grieve and survivors should not be surprised if their usual coping mechanisms for dealing with stress are no longer effective. 

Below, are some of the physical, emotional and behavioral reactions a survivor might experience following the death of their loved one. It is important for survivors to remember that their thoughts, feelings and behaviors are inter-related, because their thoughts affect how they feel and their feelings affect how they behave. Additionally, past traumatic experiences and grief can affect the emotional response to traumatic grief. 

Common Thought Process Reactions • Flashbacks, nightmares, daydreaming, intrusive memories and images, searching for meaning and answers… WHY?, indecisiveness, inability to think clearly, fragmented thought process, mind is numb, thoughts of suicide, and preoccupation with thoughts of the deceased. 

7 Emotional Reactions • Denial, irritability, anger, rage, fear, terror, guilt, indifference, sadness, depression, anxiety, nightmares, insecurity, paranoia, lonely, distrust, helpless, powerless, numb, inconsolable grief, abandonment, confusion, preoccupation with death, and unrealistic expectations. 

Behavioral Reactions • Hyper-activity, hypo-activity, lashing out, detachment, avoidance, immobility, hypervigilance, disorganization, perfectionism, compulsive cleaning, hoarding, wandering, isolation, increased promiscuity, clingy, fear of intimacy, weight loss, over-eating, poor hygiene, substance abuse, gambling, stealing, and physical violence. 

Physical Reactions • Numbness, nausea, stomach ache, change in sleep patterns, elevated heart rate, sweating, light-headedness, hyperventilation, loss of appetite, increased appetite, headaches, tiredness, exhaustion, body aches, accident prone, shortness of breath, tightness in throat or chest, dry mouth, sensitivity to noise, light or alcohol, and general feeling of being unwell.