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Traumatic Grief and Post-Traumatic Growth

Most disasters occur unexpectedly and suddenly. As a result, they often lead to significant losses for thousands of people and serious social and economic difficulties afterwards. Disasters such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and tsunamis can cause major damage in people's lives. Traumatic events damage the integrity of both the individual's self-image and their perception of the world.

After natural disasters, individuals try to cope with their losses and traumas. Grief is one of the coping mechanisms that occur after a disaster. The grief that is experienced after a disaster is considered normal but also a sad process. The intense emotions experienced during the grieving process are considered a way for the grieving individual to bid farewell to their losses. Grief is a process that each individual experiences differently and in their own unique way. However, there are common stages of grief that everyone goes through. These stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.


This first stage of grief helps the person cope with the sudden, unexpected, and intense pain of loss and continue with their life. In this stage, the person experiencing shock and denial loses the meaning of life, becomes insensitive to the outside world, begins to question how to continue living and why they should continue, and tries to find a way to get through the day. The reality of the loss is not accepted, and the person who has been lost feels like they could come back at any moment. Denial helps to spread the heavy and intense feelings of grief over a longer period of time. Because the reality of the loss is too heavy for mental health to bear, the self does not accept the loss in order to protect itself. However, over time, all denied feelings begin to surface.


The person needs to feel anger in order to heal. When anger is allowed to surface and be felt, its effect gradually decreases and the person begins to approach healing. Underneath the anger lies the person's disappointment and pain. Anger temporarily fills the void caused by the loss. Grief initially causes the person to feel lost and disconnected from their surroundings. Subsequently, suddenly appearing anger directed towards others reestablishes the lost connection between the person and the outside world. It is extremely critical not to suppress anger during this stage. Anger is a symbolic expression of the intensity of love for the person who has been lost. Anger may arise in various forms, such as opposition to the closest people or to a stranger who comes to the funeral or to the society in which one lives.


The third stage of trauma is bargaining. After the denial and anger stages, genuine emotions related to the trauma begin to emerge. Feelings such as guilt can be intense and heavy. In this stage, the person begins to confront the reality of what they have lost or what has happened to them. Bargaining may take different forms. For example, someone who has lost their home in an earthquake may think "If I pray enough, when I wake up tomorrow, the earthquake will not have happened and my house will not have been destroyed."


The stage of depression follows bargaining in the process of post-traumatic grief. With other distracting emotions gone, the weight of the loss and the pain experienced causes depression to emerge in the person who has experienced trauma. There are various symptoms of depression, including:

  • Sadness, hopelessness, and feelings of emptiness

  • Lack of energy

  • Lack of enjoyment in activities previously enjoyed

  • Sleep disturbances, either sleeping too much or not enough

  • Anxiety and feelings of guilt

  • Feelings of blame and worthlessness

  • Decreased or increased appetite

  • Clouded thinking, slow thoughts

  • Decreased response time and slowing of bodily movements

  • Memory problems and difficulty making decisions

  • Feeling excessively irritable, angry, and disappointed

  • Withdrawal from relationships

  • Thoughts of self-harm or death.


In the final stage of traumatic grief, the individual begins to accept what has happened and find ways to cope with their loss. Acceptance does not mean that the grief or loss is left behind. However, it means that it is accepted and the individual has found ways to make sense of the trauma in their life. The acceptance stage is defined as a healing process. The person who reaches this stage has processed the emotions and thoughts caused by the trauma and has become able to cope with them. The person who accepts the trauma can better cope with the feelings created by it.

The stages of grief are not experienced by everyone in the same order or with the same intensity. Some individuals may experience different emotions and reactions that do not belong to these stages. The healing process of traumatic grief is subjective for each individual and requires time, support, and self-care.

Post-Traumatic Search for Meaning and Post-Traumatic Growth

The traumatic grief process leads the person to question their own existence, the purpose and meaning of life. This questioning is called post-traumatic search for meaning. Post-traumatic search for meaning is the effort of the person to make sense of what they have experienced. The person can only make sense of their traumatic experience by gaining a new perspective, giving their life a new purpose, and redefining themselves. Some individuals who experience grief as a result of trauma better understand themselves and have a stronger mental structure by redefining their lives. This process is called post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth is conceptualized as the psychological maturity, empowerment, and positive changes that a person experiences after a traumatic experience.


Hurst, R. & Kannangara, C. (2022). Post-traumatic growth from grief - A narrative literature review. Mental Health and Social Inclusion. 10.1108/MHSI-09-2022-0059.

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