Tips for Coping with Traumatic Loss

ARLINGTON, Va. – Coping with the death of a loved one is never easy, but a sudden and traumatic loss can raise special concerns for the family members and friends left behind. Aviation tragedies, combat, homicide and other types of violent deaths can be particularly difficult. These deaths are unexpected and survivors must grapple with the knowledge that their loved ones experienced trauma.

Founded by a military widow after her husband died in a plane crash, the nonprofit organization Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) assists bereaved military families. TAPS has assisted more than 50,000 people since 1994. More than 80 percent of the families coming to TAPS for care and support experienced traumatic losses when their loved ones died in combat, in aviation incidents, in training accidents, in vehicle accidents, by suicide, by homicide, by terrorist act, or by some other unanticipated means. It takes on average 5-7 years for people grieving a traumatic loss to reach a “new normal.” TAPS offers the following tips to help grieving families:

Realize that it is common to have physical and emotional reactions to a traumatic loss. Your body and emotions are reacting to an abnormal event. Grief, headaches, sleeplessness, heart palpitations, tightness in your chest, startling, shock, sadness, anger, disbelief, short term memory loss, feelings of helplessness or panic, depression, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, or other issues are common. See a medical provider if you feel you need assistance.

Turn off the news some of the time, if you can. Prolonged exposure to news reporting about the traumatic event can be detrimental for those who loved the people who died. If you need to get ongoing information, ask a family friend to keep you informed, or set a time of day when you will “check” on the news (so there are periods of time when you are not watching the news). Try to avoid watching 24/7 news coverage related to your loved one’s death.

Ask for help from family and friends. Contact friends and relatives. Ask them to help you make phone calls, make travel arrangements, care for other family members (such as young children), or complete other tasks while you are in the process of searching for information about your loved one, making funeral arrangements, etc.

If you are asked to comment by the media, consider carefully how to respond. In a high profile incident, any information in the public domain or on social networking websites, may be used by the news media. You can choose what level of access you want to give the news media. Your choice to speak or not to speak with reporters can impact what is said and written about your loved one. Make decisions as a family about what information to share and photos to release. Realize that what you share now, may be printed and repeated for years to come. It may be best to select one person to share information on behalf of your family.

Reach out to people you trust for care and support. Try to spend time with family and friends that you trust in a private place. If your loved one died in an event that took the lives of others, you may find it helpful to connect with other bereaved families from the same event. Your faith community may be a source of support for you.

Try to sleep. Sleeplessness is a common problem among the recently bereaved. Even if you feel you cannot sleep, it is important to try to rest.

Pay special attention to the needs of children and teens. Young people are particularly vulnerable following a traumatic event. Try to maintain routines for children, offer support and understanding, and pay attention to their needs.

Don’t feel like you have to “be strong” all the time. Feeling sad or frightened is normal. Crying does not mean you are weak or losing it. Talking about your feelings may help. You do not need to protect your relatives or friends by putting on a brave front. Showing your feelings may help others and you.

Respect individual expressions of grief. Some people may not cry openly, but will feel pain as deeply as others. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Within your family or circle of friends, allow each other the space and grace to express your grief as needed.

Do what helps you. Physical activities can help you. Try going for a walk or getting some exercise.

Consider writing in a journal, or write a note to your loved one who died. Writing down your feelings can help you to better understand the event and begin to come to terms with the loss of a loved one.

If you are comfortable doing so, participate in rituals related to the death of your loved one. Attend the funeral, memorial service, or interment, write a note to your loved one, or place an object near the grave site or interment location.

Avoid making major life decisions for at least 6-12 months after the death of your loved one. While many things have to be done in the immediate days after a person has died, try to delay making major decisions about your home, your job or your finances after a traumatic event.

Seek ways to honor your loved one. In lieu of funeral flowers, ask for donations to go to a particular charity that addresses an issue their loved one cared about. The helplessness and lack of control felt in the face of a trauma may cause feelings of guilt and hopelessness. Finding things that you can control, like your ability to help others, may help ease feelings of guilt.

Locate resources to assist you. There may be resources available to assist you through your workplace, the American Red Cross, or other sources. Bereavement counseling may be available through hospice, faith communities, grief centers, private therapists, or the Vet Centers (for families grieving active duty military casualties).

About TAPS: The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) is the national organization providing compassionate care for the families of America’s fallen military heroes and has offered support to more than 50,000 surviving family members of our fallen military and their caregivers since 1994. TAPS provides peer-based emotional support, grief and trauma resources, grief seminars and retreats for adults, Good Grief Camps for children, case work assistance, connections to community-based care, online and in-person support groups and a 24/7 resource and information helpline for all who have been affected by a death in the Armed Forces. Services are provided free of charge. For more information go to www.taps.org or call the toll-free TAPS resource and information helpline at 1.800.959.TAPS (8277).

Ami Neiberger-Miller

More Articles Written by Ami

Ami Neiberger-Miller, APR, Public Affairs Office - work with TAPS includes working with the news media, designing strategic outreach campaigns, advising surviving families on media relations, speaking to organizations about TAPS, conducting online outreach to raise awareness with core audiences, writing press releases and other materials, and forging partnerships that help build support for TAPS and surviving families. Because she is a surviving family member, Ami brings a unique perspective to her role with TAPS. Ami’s 22-year-old brother, U.S. Army Specialist Christopher Neiberger, was killed in August 2007 by a roadside bomb while serving with the U.S. Army in Baghdad, Iraq. She managed an avalanche of media attention focused on her grieving family and tries to use her personal experience and professional expertise to help others. Ami has emerged as a leading advocate for surviving families through her work with TAPS and the media. She authored a guide to managing the news media for military families dealing with traumatic situations. She has written for PRSA’s Tactics, been interviewed for the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, and spoken at Columbia University on media coverage and trauma survivors. She has been interviewed by CNN, CBS Sunday Morning, the Pentagon Channel, the Voice of America, and many other outlets. She also appears in the HBO documentary “Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery.” As an active member of the TAPS Sibling Support Network, Ami says she finds strength in connecting with others who have experienced the similar loss of a loved one serving in the military. She devoted more than 12 years of her career to helping organizations improve how they communicate and work with the media. She has worked with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, the Nature Conservancy, the National 4-H Council, the University of Florida, the National Veterans Legal Services Program, and Sister Cities International. She founded Steppingstone LLC in 2003 and works as a consultant. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Florida and is accredited in public relations. To learn more about Ami and her work with TAPS, go to: www.taps.org. Ami appeared on the radio show Healing the Grieving Heart to discuss “Loss & the Military.” To hear her interview with Dr. Gloria and Dr. Heidi, click on the following link: www.voiceamericapd.com/health/010157/horsley121108.mp3

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  • Alicia Wind says:

    My 10 year old step daughter lost her 16 year old brother a little over a month ago. Does anyone have any tips for me to help her cope with her loss? Her mother isn’t not dealing well, not that there is a way to deal well, but I’m afraid her emotional needs are not being met. Any advice?