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Understanding Our Emotions After a Traumatic Loss

The news over the past weeks of shootings in California, Ohio and Texas has shaken communities all over the country. Learning about these tragedies can be emotionally stressful and it is normal to feel a wide range of emotions and concerns. Even if you have not been impacted by a traumatic or violent death personally, the details of events like mass shootings can cause you to feel emotional stress, or secondary trauma.
When someone dies by accident or homicide, our grief is intense. Compared to other losses we have had, this loss may seem complicated, more painful and more likely to take us to emotional extremes.

We may experience grief over the senselessness/unfairness of the death.

    • Many deaths make no sense.
    • Persons who were negligent or outright destructive may have caused them.
    • They may have been caused by circumstances where an error of some sort had fatal consequences.
    • Realizing that the death might have been prevented, the phrase “if only…” is a particularly painful part of this type of grief.

We may experience grief over the lack of dignity of the death.

  • A sudden death rarely has the dignity experienced in the peaceful death of an elderly person.
  • We may grieve that someone was “cheated” out of a peaceful death from natural causes.

We may experience feelings of guilt. 

  • Sometimes we feel guilty that we survived when others did not.
  • We may recognize “survivor guilt” as illogical, but it is a normal response.
  • We may spend a lot time wondering, “if only….”
  • We may take on blame or partial blame for the death; often this is an attempt to gain some sense of control over its senselessness.

We may experience grief over the unnaturalness/untimeliness of the death.

  • Losing someone through violence or an accident is not part of how we feel the world should work.
  • When a younger person dies this way, it heightens the feeling of unnaturalness as well as untimeliness.

We may experience discomfort over media attention to the loss.

  • Private loss often becomes public with a violent or accidental death.
  • The public exposure can be extremely difficult.
  • We may find ourselves obsessively collecting and going over details of the account.

We may experience increased fears over personal safety and safety of other loved ones.

  • The suddenness, untimeliness and unnaturalness of a violent or accidental death highlight our own vulnerability and the vulnerability of others we love.
  • We may see the world as a dangerous place for a while.
  • We may become overly fearful and cautious.
  • We may have trouble reading the paper or watching television because of the violence they report.

We may experience overwhelming feelings of rage.

  • We may be surprised by the depths of our anger at the person who caused or contributed to the loss.
  • We may have vivid fantasies about revenge.
  • These are normal feelings, and it is helpful to find safe outlets for some of these feelings.
  • Our rage manifests one layer of the deep agony a survivor feels, and it keeps our attention directed outward for a while. As we let go of some of the anger, we may find ourselves confronting more of the deep inner feelings of loss.

We may experience lack of control over memories and thoughts about the death.

  • One of the characteristics of post-traumatic stress is that particular memories repeatedly intrude on our thinking.
  • Sometimes this intrusion makes us feel we are re-experiencing the trauma.
  • Painful memories may also intrude upon our dreams.
  • We may find that certain situations tend to trigger such intrusive memories.

We may experience feelings of isolation.

  • Because the details of the death may be so awful, we may feel uncomfortable or embarrassed to talk about them with friends.
  • We may not trust that others will understand the way we feel, yet sharing our story is an important part of healing.
  • Our friends may feel uncomfortable; they are no more prepared than we are to deal with sudden and violent death.
  • Support groups offer help in allowing people with similar experiences to come together to share their stories and experiences.
  • If no support group is available, talk with an individual counselor.


If you are struggling to cope with recent tragedies or with your own loss of a loved one, we’re here to help. Please call 855-492-0812 to get in touch with a counselor who can talk with you.

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