PTSD following a death

Death is one of the most feared parts of life, and yet it happens to us all. No one can ever really prepare you for the impact of losing someone you love though – and even someone you don’t know too. Many studies have found that the sudden and unexpected death of a loved one is the most common type of traumatic event reported. While many people won’t go on to experience PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder, an analysis from the World Health Organisation’s ‘World Mental Health Survey’ found there was a 5.2% risk of people developing PTSD after they found out about the unexpected death of someone they love.

That may seem like a relatively small number, but the reality is that because of the high prevalence of this type of trauma, in which people are experiencing it on a daily basis across the globe, the unexpected death of someone you love accounts for around 20% of all post-traumatic stress disorder cases worldwide. That’s a significant amount of people who need a strong support system to deal with the aftermath and its effects.

Why do people develop PTSD after someone dies?

Whether it’s someone you love or a total stranger in the street, we’re all at risk of developing PTSD after someone dies. It’s not the same as normal grief; we can feel sad and upset about what we have experienced without it manifesting itself as PTSD.

Post-traumatic stress disorder often occurs when you have either experienced a threat to your own life or have witnessed a threat to someone else’s. It may come after a natural disaster, accident, illness, surprise turn of events or even after death.

How does PTSD differ from normal grief?

Unlike grief, post-traumatic stress disorder has a lot more deep-running symptoms that can have a momentous impact on your ability to get through your day. From experiencing insomnia to nightmares, flashbacks to emotional avoidance, avoiding certain situations to palpitations, anxiety to hyper-vigilence; it can rear its head in a whole host of ways. Often it requires a doctor or trained professional to diagnose your condition.

Can any early interventions help?

While we cannot eliminate the risk of people dying and shield everyone from going through this trauma, there are ways of helping people who are grieving from going on to experience PTSD. This may include offering grief counselling, starting at the funeral parlour where assistance may be offered in the first instance. Having leaflets about post-traumatic stress disorder and its impact can also be beneficial.

The important part is talking to people and breaking down the stigma, explaining that it is perfectly normal and natural. If a bad accident has happened, it may be that the emergency services ensure any witnesses are treated for shock and are given training on how to help people learn more about PTSD. This should also be part of the liaison officer training when they go and tell someone about the death of a loved one. Ensuring doctors are also able to spot the signs of PTSD after someone has experienced a death will ensure more diagnoses are made, and help is offered at an earlier stage. This can be important for recovery.

NICE guidance from 2005 and 2011 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

References: Sudden.org, Sudden.org, Atwoli L, Stein DJ, King A, et al. Posttraumatic stress disorder associated with unexpected death of a loved one: Cross-national findings from the world mental health surveys. Depress Anxiety. 2017;34(4):315-326. doi:10.1002/da.22579

Share Page