Is It Grief or Is It Trauma?

We may wonder if every adverse event is traumatizing, but that is not the case. A potentially traumatizing event can evoke grief rather than trauma, wherein the inciting event can be traumatizing but the child or adult recovers spontaneously, in a fairly short period of time, leaving little or no emotional or brain related scars. How can you tell the difference?

Grief versus trauma

Will the event cause grief, or will the experience fall on the trauma continuum?

The reasons why potential traumatic events can be experienced as grief are as varied as humans. Each child has an individual temperament, a uniquely developing brain, and distinctive ways of interpreting sensations, observations and other experiences. Further, each child experiences life uniquely within the framework of his/her matchless support network. How each situation is processed; that is, how soon and how effectively it is explained, and how much and how quickly comfort and safety occur after the trauma  influences the degree of experience. Will the event cause grief, or will the experience fall on the trauma continuum?

The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children  (NITLC) differentiates between grief and trauma by stating that the generalized reaction to grief is sadness, while the generalized reaction to trauma is terror.

The NITLC provides a helpful chart on its website comparing trauma and grief that can be a good reference for adults—and even children—to understand.



Generalized reaction…SADNESSGeneralized reaction…TERROR
Grief reactions are generally known to the public and the professionalTrauma reactions, especially in children, are largely unknown to the public and often to the professional counselors as well
Grief generally does not attack or “disfigure” our identityTrauma generally attacks, distorts, and “disfigures” our identity
In grief, guilt says, “I wish I would/would not have…”Trauma guilt says, “It was my fault.  I could have prevented it.  It should have been me…”
In grief dreams tend to be of the person who diedIn trauma, dreams are about the child, himself, dying or being hurt
Grief reactions can stand aloneTrauma reactions generally also include grief reactions
In grief, pain is related to the lossIn trauma, pain is related to the tremendous terror and an overwhelming sense of powerlessness and fear for safety
In grief, a child’s anger is generally not destructiveIn trauma, a child’s anger often becomes assaulting (even after non-violent trauma, fighting often increases)

Trauma Reactions are DIFFERENT from Grief Reactions.

Trauma Reactions OVERPOWER Grief Reactions.

When looking at a child’s (or adult’s) response to trauma, I think the distinction is very important to make, particularly when the event occurs only once. As we see children responding to potentially traumatizing events, and we recognize how individual and unique these responses can be, we can better understand whether this is grief or a true traumatic reaction that is terrorizing the child.

Hopefully this set of distinctions will help caregivers of children be able to evaluate the severity of a traumatic event.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

Information taken from Enhancing Trauma Awareness, Diane Wagenhals, 2008.  All rights reserved.  Licensed materials.

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