Critical Incident Stress Management and Grief
Article by Roberta Cohen
Most writings related to critical incidents focus on the post-traumatic stress syndromes, which indeed are the most common reactions that we see following such events, and those that are most expected. However, as one might imagine, events that affect us powerfully enough to frighten, confuse, and overwhelm our usual coping mechanisms, often involve death. And where there is death, there is grief.
Central to traumatic stress reactions is an alarming and life threatening occurrence, which produces reactions that include shock, disbelief, fear, confusion, flashbacks of the incident, anger, sadness and feelings of helplessness in the face of forces that could not be altered. Central to grief is the finality of death and all that it signifies, including the loss of the deceased person’s future dreams, goals and relationships, and our loss of our relationship with him/her. While grief produces some of the same emotional responses as does post traumatic stress (for example, disbelief, anger, sadness), people often experience these reactions as separate, since they are directed toward the loss, as opposed to a shocking and dangerous event.
When a critical incident results in witnessed death, people do not necessarily have to have known the person who died well, or for a long period of time, to experience a grief reaction. At times of crisis and tragedy, the usual social distance that people maintain tends to shrink and people often feel more bonded with each other. What we do know about the deceased’s life, work and death, can seem much more significant than it did before.
This phenomenon is frequently observed in the workplace. Workers will say that they did not know the deceased well, and then proceed to talk about the person’s daily rituals and habits, what kind of worker he was, what they knew about his family, what he found humorous. They then speak of the many ways in which the person will be missed and demonstrate shock, sadness, anger, and deep sadness about the individual’s death.
We recommend that individuals who have witnessed both a traumatic event and an associated death, treat themselves gently and with great care as they go forward. The days, weeks and months that follow a critical incident that includes loss, may represent some of the most difficult moments in their lives. It can be an exceedingly difficult period.
Folks seem to alternate between their traumatic stress and grief reactions, which can be especially confusing, exhausting, and distracting. It is of utmost importance, that they connect with others who they can trust and confide in, and from whom they can ask for the support that they need. They must understand that their emotional turmoil is a normal response to horrific events, and that it is quite usual to feel “unable to function” for a period. This is simply our psyche letting us know, that is time to slow down and allow ourselves to process all that has occurred.
After a critical incident involving death, employers who provide the needed latitude to those who are traumatized and grieving, will be fostering their employees’ recoveries. They then stand a better chance that these individuals will return to work with full concentration and the ability to safely and effectively perform their job functions.
About the Author
Roberta Cohen is President of Cohen Associates, P.A., a Crisis Management Practice Group, providing critical incident stress management and grief counseling services Please visit: http://www.path2solutions.com/