Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and traumatic grief can have a debilitating impact on people who have been bereaved suddenly. In this first Sudden blog post, Dianne Yates, partner and personal injury specialist at Birchall Blackburn Law, overviews the importance of recognising the signs of PTSD and traumatic grief, and highlights some of the key symptoms that support professionals should be aware of.
The months and weeks following an unexpected and sudden bereavement can be incredibly overwhelming and confusing for a bereaved family.
Support and guidance from professionals such as emergency service workers and funeral directors can be vital in the hours, weeks and months that follow a sudden bereavement, playing a crucial role in helping mitigate the immediate shock and raw emotions that follow an unexpected death.
However, it is often only in months and years after a sudden death that a clearer picture develops of the personal challenges a grieving person faces.
When the inquest, police investigation and funeral have passed, friends and family return to their lives, the phone stops ringing, and visitors stop calling, who then recognises that a person is struggling with something more than the cathartic grieving process?
It is the support workers and counsellors, community nurses and family doctors, who support families in the extended period following a sudden death.
Working alongside these professionals is vital in my role as a lawyer. As an experienced serious and catastrophic specialist solicitor, I feel strongly that it is crucial that the needs of my vulnerable clients are met. Recognising any potential symptoms and warning signs for PTSD and traumatic grief are essential.
The stage at which a lawyer becomes involved following a sudden death can vary, but often occurs within the first few weeks. Initial support from legal professionals can involve assistance with coroner’s inquests or police investigations, and following this early support, relationships with clients can develop which last for years.
My position as a lawyer provides me with a special – and privileged – position, allowing me to support an adult and child over an extended period of time.
Throughout our lives, many of us will know people who have been devastated by the sudden death of a loved-one; sudden bereavement of this sort can be associated with traumatic grief and post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What are the signs of traumatic grief?
In the immediate aftermath of a bereavement, a number of symptoms may be expected, and form a normal part of the grieving process. However, a person who has experienced a sudden bereavement may be at higher risk of suffering traumatic grief reactions.
Traumatic grief is defined by bereavement professionals’ as grieving thoughts and reactions that are more traumatic, and challenging, than those suffered in most cases after a bereavement. Generally, these symptoms can be expected to last for longer than two months.
Whilst the intensity and type of traumatic grief can vary widely between individuals, some commonly experienced symptoms may include:
Increased likelihood of emotional challenges:
Individuals suffering traumatic grief may be at risk of experiencing heightened irritability, or find themselves more likely to express anger or bitterness, with sudden, or unexpected, outbursts. Other negative emotions, such as a sense of unfairness around the death, or strong feelings of guilt, may also be likely. Phobias, including social anxiety, fears and the development of depression or suicidal thoughts can also arise, alongside intrusive thoughts.
It is also important to be aware of physical symptoms – these could include severe weight change, or on-going issues, such as pains, illness, or other symptoms developed through the manifestation of stress.
As a result of emotional problems, individuals may experience long term insomnia or nightmares, or difficulty doing daily tasks during stressful moments at work or while caring for children.
What are the signs of PTSD?:
People who have been diagnosed with PTSD are defined as having suffered a traumatic event, which can include a sudden death of a loved one. Symptoms of the condition generally take around a month to manifest, and it is believed that in about a third of cases, these debilitating symptoms are suffered more than a year later if appropriate care is not provided.
Many of the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are also similar to those suffered during traumatic grief, and it is possible that a suddenly bereaved person will suffered from both.
Some typical signs of PTSD can include:
- Recurring thoughts, and vivid flashbacks, to the event, which may sometimes be expressed through traumatic nightmares
- Intense distress when reminded of the event, and fears that similar events may happen again
- Avoidance of things associated with the event. Reminders of the event can arouse intense distress and a sense of detachment and unreality
- A loss of a sense of safety, and feeling of isolation and being powerless
- Self-destructive or reckless behaviour
It is important to remember that each person’s grief will be uniquely experienced, and that people may respond to seemingly similar circumstances in a very different way. Recognising that a person may be suffering from traumatic grief and PTSD is just the beginning. It is essential that a formal diagnosis is obtained and that treatment is devised and delivered appropriately for the suddenly bereaved person's situation, which may involve other life challenges.
If you want to know what to do next, a good place to start is right here at Sudden. Further information and guidance about PTSD and traumatic grief is available here.
About the author:
With more than 20 years legal experience Dianne heads up the Serious and Catastrophic Injury team at Birchall Blackburn Law. Dianne has a formidable reputation in the legal world, particularly for working for the ‘underdog’ and those without the resources to fight for their rights. She represents clients from across the UK.
 Shear, M.K. et al. 2011. Complicated Grief and Related Bereavement Issues for DSM-5. Depression and Anxiety. [Online]. 28 (2), pp. 103-117. [Accessed 17/01/2017]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3075805/
 National Institute for Clinical Excellence. 2005. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: The Management of PTSD in Adults and Children in Primary and Secondary Care. [Online]. [Accessed 17/01/2017]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0015848/pdf/PubMedHealth_PMH0015848.pdf
 Cohn. S. and Dolich. M. 2014. Complications in Surgery and Trauma. USA: CRC Press.