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Experiencing trauma after a suicide loss

Many people grieving the loss of someone to suicide also experience the effects of trauma.

Trauma is an experience that is emotionally painful, distressing, or shocking that can result in temporary or ongoing mental and physical health concerns. You might experience feelings and emotions associated with trauma if you found the person who took their life or if you have been affected by hearing the details of a friend or family member’s suicide.

Reactions to trauma

As with grief, people react to trauma in different ways. Your mind and body may react to trauma immediately or over a period of time – days, weeks, months or even years.

Some of the more common reactions are listed below. Not everyone will react to trauma in these ways, but being aware of changes in your behaviour and thinking can help identify symptoms of trauma.

  • heart palpitations, trembling or sudden sweating
  • easily startled
  • breathing difficulties
  • headaches or muscle aches
  • digestive problems, including nausea, constipation, diarrhoea or a change in appetite
  • tiredness, fatigue, restlessness
  • irritability
  • increased use of alcohol and/or drugs
  • withdrawal or detachment from others, loss of interest in social activities, increase in isolation
  • avoidance of places or situations that remind you of the suicide
  • change in sleep patterns.
  • increased anxiety, panic attacks
  • troubled or distressed when exposed to traumatic news or events
  • irrational worry about others
  • feelings of abandonment, isolation or powerlessness
  • feeling a lack of control
  • numbness or mood swings
  • feelings of depression, sadness, guilt, blame, anger, frustration fear, and irritability.
  • recurring thoughts/dreams of the death
  • being absorbed by what’s happened, continually asking 'why?'
  • confused or slowed thinking,memory difficulties
  • difficulty concentrating or making decisions.

These reactions can be distressing, however there are ways to work through trauma and in many cases, these feelings will decrease or you will learn to manage them better with time.

Ways of responding to trauma

Acknowledging that you have experienced a traumatic event is helpful to your recovery. Consider trying some of the following to help with your recovery process:

  • Allow yourself time to be alone, it is an understandable reaction to a distressing experience. Alternatively, if you are feeling alone, isolated or your mood is not improving, try spending time with friends or family.
  • Express your thoughts and feelings in ways that feel natural to you – talking to friends / family, writing down thoughts or listening to music.
  • Give yourself time to recover. You do not have to be in control of your life straight away.
  • Rest your body and mind. If you are having trouble sleeping, working or doing things in general – try to do something calming instead, then try again.
  • Take care of your health as best as you can – eat healthy, stay hydrated and try getting some fresh air.
  • Be aware of your alcohol, drugs (prescription or recreational) and stimulant consumption -including caffeine. These may further agitate your body when it is already under stress and can interfere with the recovery process, causing additional problems later on.
  • Exercise or go for a walk – it can help burn stressful energy and assist in calming your body.
  • Take care when driving, cooking or undertaking activities that require concentration. Trauma can affect your concentration and ability to focus.
  • Resume your normal routine and return to work only when you feel you are able. Consider reducing your hours if it’s an option.
  • Hold off on making major life decisions until you feel better. Smaller, day-to-day decisions can help to restore a sense of control, improve your confidence and thinking.

It is important to have the support of family friends when experiencing trauma, especially when it is combined with grief.

You should consider seeking out some professional help if:

  • you feel very distressed or that your life is significantly disrupted
  • you are thinking of harming yourself or others.
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