By Helen Fitzgerald, CT
After a terrible tragedy, many people experience an intense
emotional reaction that may not show up for weeks or even months
afterwards. Mental health clinicians call this reaction
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). If you have suffered a
traumatic loss, you may feel numb right afterwards. But later, many
confusing and debilitating feelings may come up and you may not
link it to the tragic event. Even if you were not on the scene of
the tragedy, you may still be traumatized. You may be terrified it
could happen again. You may not be able to sleep by yourself and
need lights on to chase away the darkness.
If you are experiencing some of the following symptoms, tell your
parents and/or school counselor and get help immediately:
• Recurring nightmares of the event.
• Flashbacks and hallucinations.
• Intense anxiety whenever you hear of a similar event.
• Avoidance of any feelings or thoughts concerning the tragedy.
• Avoidance of any activities or situations that would remind you
of the tragedy.
• Preoccupation with the tragedy many months after it occurred.
• Lack of recall; blank spots in your memory.
• A significant decrease in your interest in normal activities
either at home or at school.
• Depression combined with increased feelings of sadness,
loneliness and hopelessness.
• Detachment and withdrawal from your friends and family.
• Feelings of "survivor guilt." Feeling you should have died or
perhaps taking chances and doing some self-destructive or
• Inability to experience emotions, to feel happy or to love
• Avoidance of close relationships out of fear that you will be
left alone again.
• Being overwhelmed with emotions -- tense, angry, scared and out
• Feeling like you have no future, are unable to date, to marry or
have a career.
• Problems with increased use of alcohol or drugs.
• New problems not previously experienced in falling or staying
asleep, or sleeping too much.
• Irritability or outbursts of anger directed at your family,
friends, or teachers.
• Difficulty in concentrating on things you usually enjoy such as
reading and listening to music.
• Easily startled, jumping at any unusual or loud noise.
• Physical symptoms such as cold sweat, rapid heartbeat, or
shortness of breath whenever you are reminded of the tragedy.
• Recurring recollections of the death/trauma that are disrupting
your home, school or leisure time.
Keep a journal and record and date your symptoms. You can use it to
document your most private feelings and also to track how you are
feeling over time. If you feel any of the above symptoms right
away, it is a normal part of your grief. But if they persist, do
get some guidance. It is of utmost importance to find people you
can talk to. Talking about how you feel may help you feel better.
Talk about what you saw, what you heard, what you smelled and what
you feared. Don't hide your feelings or they may come back at a
later time to haunt you.
Here are some other things you can do to help yourself:
• Talk about the event as much as you are able to and urge your
friends to do the same. Ask a counselor to set up informal talk
groups. Every time you go over the event, it loses some power and
the hold it has on you.
• Have patience with yourself; the healing may take a long
• Learn to meditate, lose yourself in some music, take walks, visit
a peaceful place such as a park, church or library.
• Take care of your physical needs. Eat healthy foods, keep up with
your exercise program and get enough rest.
• Stay involved with your family, friends and school. Keep up a
regular schedule and stick to old routines, as best as you can.
• Have patience with your parents; they are not going to let you
out of their sight. Time will help them relax their need to
Visit American Hospice Foundation's
Grief at School page where you will find materials to help
address children's grief.
After a Tragedy: What Kids Can Do article was originally
published on the American Hospice Foundation
website. © 2003. American Hospice Foundation. All Rights
Writing a Condolence Note to a Grieving Child or Adolescent
How Can We Respond to the Grief of Children?
Family Reorganization After a Loss
Also by Helen Fitzgerald:
Helping Your Bereaved Friend
Helping Children Through Grief
You Know You’re Getting Better When...
Writing a Condolence Note
Helen Fitzgerald is a Certified Thanatologist, author and
lecturer. Her books include
The Grieving Child: A Parents' Guide,
The Mourning Handbook and
The Grieving Teen. She has appeared
on the CBS Morning Show and the NBC Today Show and was previously
the director of training for the American Hospice Foundation. You
can ask Helen a question about dealing with grief and loss by
Ask Helen on the American Hospice Foundation website.
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