How EMDR Can Help When You’re Struggling With Traumatic Grief

All trauma can shatter your sense of security, comfort, and well-being. Its impact can be both obvious and insidious. Some moments may feel easier than others, but you carry the massive pain with you as you move through the day. 

Many people experience traumatic grief throughout their lifetime. In some cases, the healing occurs on its own. Other times, the challenges and obstacles persist. You may feel more anxious and depressed. You may have a sense of dread or hopelessness or chronic sadness that doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

Therapy can help, and EMDR is one of the best treatments for trauma. Let’s get into how it works and whether it’s an appropriate option for you.

Understanding Traumatic Grief

Loss hurts, and all grief can be painful. Even when it’s expected, we often struggle to accept the new reality.

Traumatic grief, however, refers to a sudden, shocking loss that leaves you feeling especially vulnerable. The loss doesn’t just feel sad and unfair- it feels horrific and even debilitating. The following deaths can result in experiencing traumatic grief:

  • Homicides.
  • Suicides.
  • Shocking accidents.
  • Natural disasters.
  • Terrorist attacks.
  • School shootings.
  • Kidnappings.

When we lose someone, we usually feel a deep sadness and loneliness. We may experience a period of shock- where we can’t actually comprehend the reality of what happened. Additionally, we might also feel angry or guilty.

But if you’re going through traumatic grief, you experience those sensations and common PTSD symptoms, including:

  • Intense rage.
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, and other activities.
  • Exacerbated depression and anxiety.
  • Phobias related to the cause of death.
  • Suicidal ideation (possibly to be reunited with the person who died).
  • Helplessness and directionless feelings about the meaning of life.
  • Intense survivors guilt that impedes daily functioning.
  • Panic attacks.
  • Flashbacks.
  • NIghtmares and insomnia.
  • A prolonged sense of numbness.

These symptoms can vary in severity. They may not appear immediately- it’s not uncommon for people to start experiencing them several weeks or months after the traumatic event. Likewise, they may ebb and flow in their intensity. 

It may feel extremely challenging to talk about your traumatic grief. You might worry about burdening others. You might also have negative experiences with people invalidating or dismissing how you feel.

How EMDR Can Help With Traumatic Grief

EMDR has numerous benefits, and it is one of the leading treatments for trauma healing. EMDR focuses on reconciling parts of both your past and present- as well as creating hope for your future. 

EMDR follows several phases. You and your therapist will move through these phases together at an appropriate, steady pace.

First, you’ll discuss the best targets for your EMDR work. The targets can refer to any distressing material that results in feeling overwhelmed, sad, or otherwise anxious. If you’re struggling with traumatic grief, the loss itself will likely be the target.

Strengthening Your Coping Skills

Before activating this target, your therapist will spend some time teaching you various coping skills. You must learn and implement these skills in between sessions.  

Many times, during trauma work, people feel overwhelmed or activated by the material they discuss. These feelings are normal, but coping skills can help you mitigate some of their intensity. Some universal skills include:

  • Having a reliable support system that you can reach out to if you need to talk.
  • Engaging in routine exercise.
  • Practicing gratitude.
  • Deep breathing.
  • Meditation and mindfulness.

Assessing Target Memories and Processing Towards Change

EMDR therapists activate target memories by:

  • Asking about specific images or sensations related to the memory.
  • Exploring thoughts and beliefs about yourself or others.

Throughout this process, your therapist will evaluate the intensity associated with these thoughts and feelings.

During the next phase, your therapist will work with you to recall the memory. At the same time, they will be conducting sets of bilateral stimulations. You will be discussing the thoughts and feelings that arise during this time. If you become overwhelmed or uncomfortable, your therapist will offer you grounding exercises until you feel more calm.

This process repeats itself several times. As you continue sharing about the trauma, you start becoming more and more desensitized to your emotions. It doesn’t mean that you forget about the trauma- it simply means that it feels less debilitating and devastating. 

If you struggle with guilt or shame about what happened, this exercise aims to reduce your sense of personal responsibility. 

Getting The Support and Compassion You Deserve 

Although grief is a universal experience, we all cope with it differently. Traumatic grief can impact everything- from your relationship with others to how you perceive your purpose in life.

At Willow Counseling, we specialize in supporting our clients as they move through their grief. We know how challenging this process can be. We also know how important it is to honor individual healing processes. We’re here for you- contact us today to learn more about how we can help. 

Willow Counseling, PLLC – Nashville, TN

Willow Counseling, PLLC exists to provide quality trauma-informed mental health counseling to the Nashville community, recognizing the interconnectedness of our emotional, spiritual and physical selves. We work together to alleviate symptoms, learn better coping skills, relieve burdens, remove the pain of trauma, and so much more. However, our greatest desire is for you to know what it means to feel purpose and joy again and to recognize the strength and worth you have to offer the world.


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