Traumatic Loss and the Family

By: Kathleen R. Gilbert, Ph.D., CFLE

On September 11, the United States experienced traumatic loss at a level that was, until then, unimaginable. The aftermath of traumatic loss is uniquely intense, putting incredible strain on the family. Yet, it is possible for families to experience such a loss and survive it intact.

What Is A Traumatic Loss?

A traumatic loss is one that is sudden, unanticipated, and outside the normal range of experience. These losses profoundly overwhelm the resources of the bereaved, leaving them feeling helpless. Grief that results from traumatic loss differs from "normal" grief in several ways: there is no time to anticipate the death; a generalized sense of horror, helplessness, and loss of control is ever present for the bereaved; their lives feel disordered and disjointed, and they now see the world as a dangerous place. The process of resolving traumatic grief is almost guaranteed to be complicated and drawn-out. Resources available to the bereaved before the death may not be available: their social network may now be gone or reduced, and supporters may feel overwhelmed and inadequate to the task of helping. Tangible resources may be depleted. Their health may suffer as the stress of their grief impairs their immune system and causes other stress-related health problems to develop.

Family Relationships and Traumatic Loss

When a crisis like a death occurs, the family is thrown into disorder. The family is disrupted and, in order to continue to function, must somehow regain some sort of stability while shifting the various responsibilities among the remaining family members. With a traumatic loss, family members need to answer questions as they attempt to make sense of the death. They may ask questions like: Why did it happen? Why my loved one? How did it happen? What can I do to prevent it from happening again?

In less intense times, the family serves as a primary source of confirmation of the reality of the experience of its members. With a traumatic loss, family members may find themselves particularly in need of this form of family social support. Unfortunately, family members may be the people least capable of providing that support.

Complicating Factors

Certain factors can confound the ability of family members to be available to each other. For example, the deaths that resulted from the terrorist attacks were violent and mutilating; most were out-of-sequence in the life cycle; they were ambiguous because few bodies were recovered; and the initiating agent was human-made and intentional.

In addition to contributing factors related to the death, other factors can complicate the grief resolution process within the family. These include:

Differential Grief

The factors listed above contribute to a phenomenon I have identified as differential grief, in which family members are grieving in unique ways, at a unique pace, dealing with ideographic issues. Although family members may feel a sense of common purpose at the outset of the crisis, as they each struggle with their own loss, they find it increasingly difficult to "hang together" as they work through their grief. The interaction of these differences and related conflicts may come together to place tremendous strain on the family.

Family Healing Process

Given the fact that an identical experience of loss is highly unlikely, if not impossible, how then can grief be resolved in the family? And how can the family remain intact after a traumatic death? Families must complete three essential tasks if they are to resolve their grief. First, they must recognize the loss and acknowledge the grief felt by all family members. Secondly, they must reorganize after the loss so that essential functions can be carried out. Lastly family members must reinvest in this new family, by working together to redefine what "family" now means.

In my work, I have found families use a number of "tools" to achieve these tasks:

Republished with permission from the author. This article originally appeared in Family Focus On... Death and Dying, Issue FF12, a publication of the National Council on Family Relations. For more information on Differential Grief, contact Dr. Gilbert at or visit

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