Portarlington psychologist Dr Eddie Murphy discusses traumatic grief in the wake of the Berkeley tragedy

The broken balcony in the Berkeley tragedy.
The tragedy in Berkeley with the loss of six lives has cast negativity over this summer. The J1 is a wonderful opportunity for students to have fun, learn about a new country and yet it turned out a disaster for these students and their families.

The tragedy in Berkeley with the loss of six lives has cast negativity over this summer. The J1 is a wonderful opportunity for students to have fun, learn about a new country and yet it turned out a disaster for these students and their families.

For many people the outpouring of sympathy reflects the common humanity that we have for people in distress. Death opens up the door to our own existence. For some it’s a time to examine their own life. For others, this door is rapidly shut as it is too difficult to bear. Finally for others that door due to sad circumstances is very much opened. Many Irish families have lost children through road traffic collisions, drownings, cancer, sudden death or suicide. The Berkeley tragedy will amplify their feelings. Such grief does not go away.

As a therapist I have seen this heartache and I feel helpless. If someone comes with panic attacks or depression I can see a route out and with proven tools of cognitive behavioural therapy there can be positive outcomes. The powerlessness that I feel when working with traumatic grief is only a drop in the ocean to the experiences of parents grieving their children.

Traumatic loss is characterised initially by shock, disbelief and numbness. Soon anger dominates. For some this is all pervasive and may never leave.

Raw grief is brutal and ruthless, and can even cause physical pain. The individual goes through shock, sadness, questioning, pain, loss, hurt, confusion, anger, disbelief and more. It impacts on how we think, to the point that we cannot think anymore.

A traumatic event causes a ripple effect like a tsunami wave. It can overwhelm families and friends. We feel powerless to help, but it is about being present and allowing people to express their grief. It is best supported in a family and community context.

Irish funeral culture does allow for the expression of grief. In time individuals may find a capacity to cope. That doesn’t mean they forget, it just means they go on. Within most people there is a connectedness, a strength, a will to stick together and adapt after trauma.

Our thoughts go to those who survived and witnessed this terrible incident in Berkeley. The psychological impact for them will be different than those directly bereaved. Medical needs take priority initially but in the longer term their psychological needs are central. There is a potentiality for ‘survival guilt’. Why did I survive when others did not? Survivors may feel somehow the “wrong” person survived. This guilt may help to cope with the helplessness and powerlessness of being in a life-threatening situation without the ability to protect or save others. It can also be one way to express a connection to those who have died, a way, for a time, of keeping them alive.

The challenge is to accept that guilt exists and can be part of the healing process after traumatic loss. Talk to people who will not express judgment. Counselling can be very important.

The goal is that grief does not turn into complicated grief, an intense and long-lasting form that takes over a person’s life. Traumatic or complicated grief is a form of grief that takes hold of a person’s life and won’t let go. People with complicated grief often say that they feel “stuck.” Time is moving on but they are not. They have strong feelings of yearning for the person who died that don’t seem to lessen as time goes on. They find it hard to imagine that life without the deceased person has purpose or meaning. It can seem like joy and satisfaction are gone forever. If you are feeling his way bereavement counselling can help. See www.bereaved.ie