Chapter 1 What is traumatic grief?

Understanding the family’s trauma

Additional Videos
Understanding what trauma looks like(3:22)

“I never had anything that compared to my experience in the ICU. Hopes are up, then hopes are down, it was the biggest roller coaster ride of my life”. – Family member

Trauma occurs when a person faces imminent death or serious injury to themselves or others. This can include witnessing events that are shocking to them, such as a drastic medical intervention or a person who has died being moved.

While the occurrence of death may be routine to you, the possibility or reality of death for members of the public may be shocking, life-changing and fraught with fear and high emotions. 

The effects of trauma


We cannot prevent trauma but we can name it 


Existential Crisis

Trauma can also lead to an

existential crisis

Existential crisis: a moment when one questions the purpose, value or meaning of their life.  

that undermines the three implicit assumptions most people have about their world.


Roll your mouse over each of the boxes below to explore examples of assumptions. 

It’s always possible to explain and make sense of events.



“Why did he have this accident? This question keeps rolling around in my head and I can’t stop it”.


The world is a safe place.



“I always believed that God would keep my family safe but after his death I am left with many difficult questions”. 

“I always felt that the hospital was a safe place, but after what I saw in the ICU, I’m not so sure I can ever go back”.



Good actions lead to good outcomes.



“He was such a good person, why did this have to happen to him”?












It may not be apparent to you that a family is experiencing trauma, but this doesn’t mean that it’s not happening. The following sections will help you recognize how families experience and express both grief and trauma.  There are often elements of grief that occur in the context of trauma, and there are often traumatic aspects in grief.  As a result, there are symptoms common to both trauma and grief.