Bereavement due to traumatic death

Professional counselling

People bereaved by a traumatic death may feel many emotions, including shock, isolation and loneliness and sometimes anger or even guilt (see ‘Changing emotions and physical reactions’). People often cannot sleep and need help to cope. The people we talked to said that sometimes a prescription for sleeping tablets helped them get through the first few weeks but they didn't want to rely on medication for long.
Friends, families, GPs, charities and support groups provide much help to bereaved people, but after a traumatic bereavement many need more specialised help, which may come through counselling or psychotherapy. Counsellors and psychotherapists work in various ways: some mainly listen, but will probably help people to explore and understand their feelings too. Others ask questions, suggest different ways of thinking about problems or challenge negative thought patterns. 
Counselling is sometimes provided free by the National Health Service but sometimes only after a wait of weeks or months.
A person’s employer, or college, or a company involved in the incident that led to the traumatic death, may pay for counselling. For example, after Martin’s wife, Steph, was killed by a bus, the bus company paid for some of Martin’s counselling. He was sceptical at first, suspecting that the counsellor was in it for the money, but Martin’s respect for her soared after he learnt that she had retrained as a counsellor after her husband had been killed on the motorway.
Finding a counsellor specially trained in this type of bereavement counselling may be difficult. Some people don't want to wait for counselling. They may decide to choose their own counsellor and pay for it themselves. After Dorothy’s son was killed in an explosion at work, she was consumed with anger. She saw an NHS psychiatrist but he said he could not help her because she was grieving, not mentally ill. She decided to pay for counselling herself.
People may seek counselling or psychotherapy immediately after the death or months or years later. Counsellors or psychotherapists may be attached to a GP’s practice or a hospital or a bereavement counselling service, or they may have their own private practice. Some professional therapists work as volunteers for various charities.

Sarah thought that she would have a 3-month wait to see the counsellor attached to her GP’s practice but she was fast tracked and saw the counsellor a few days later. The counsellor helped Sarah to recognise that bereavement from a traumatic death can differ from other bereavements.

Susanna explained how the huge police investigation into the Bali bombing affected her bereavement experience. It was important to have counselling from someone who had trained in trauma and incident counselling.
During individual counselling the counsellor sees a client in a private and confidential setting and explores their distress or other difficulties. Not everyone bereaved by a traumatic death will want or even need counselling or psychotherapy' support from family or friends may be enough, but research suggests that it can benefit those who do seek professional help. Clients often use the terms counsellor and psychotherapist interchangeably. A trusting relationship with the counsellor or psychotherapist is crucial.

Most people who had had individual counselling had found it beneficial. Cynthia said that counselling helped her to make time to think about herself. Jayne also said that counselling made her realise that she was a victim too, and that Jonathan’s death had badly affected her life. Jayne saw a Cruse counsellor who was invaluable, and she also saw a counsellor who worked for another voluntary bereavement service. Some people who were at first sceptical about counselling had been surprised how useful it was.
Terri said that after Ben was murdered she saw a counsellor, who used Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and visualisation. Terri was convinced that she was going to die. The CBT helped her to change the way she thought ("Cognition") and what she did ("Behaviour)". During visualisation people use the power of their imagination to help relieve symptoms, manage problems, and relax.
Counselling or psychotherapy did not suit everyone. Matthew felt that there was no easy way to deal with the loss of his brother and preferred to manage on his own. Adam met three different counsellors after his brother died, but didn't find counselling particularly helpful.
Lisa was deeply traumatised by the deaths of two of her friends and had mental health problems for many years. She saw a psychiatrist and was offered group psychotherapy, but she didn't find this helpful. However, she was also offered individual art therapy, one to one, which suited her. She also tried other complementary therapies, such as Reiki. Eventually Lisa found a healer at a local spiritualist church. One of the healers from the church put his hands on her shoulders and on her head and made her feel warm and relaxed. Lisa felt that he had restored her soul (see ‘Religion and spirituality’)
After Marcus’s fiancée was murdered in 1987 he became depressed and suffered from what he believes was post-traumatic stress disorder. Since then Marcus has seen many psychiatrists, and he spent 12 years going to art therapy, which helped. In 2009 he attended a programme called Escaping Victimhood. This programme aims to help those suffering the consequences of serious crime, such as murder or manslaughter, to find the resources and motivation to regain control of their lives so that they can begin to enjoy life again. The programme is made up of an introductory evening, a residential workshop and a follow-up day. One-to-one counselling and therapy is available during the programme.

Last reviewed May 2019.
Last updated October 2011.


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