Mental HealthEMDR and Healing Traumatic Loss: Navigating the Grief Journey

By Rebecca Kase, Licensed Clinical Social Worker & Owner — Kase & CO

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an innovative therapy addressing deeply rooted trauma. It is also useful in treating the trauma tied to grief and mourning.

When confronted with a tragic loss, people face unparalleled distress. Grieving is natural, but sometimes excessive grief interferes with our brain’s ability to move forward. In this case, distressing memories and emotions can prevent people from finding resolve and lead to complicated or even traumatic grief experiences. EMDR enables people to integrate distressing images, memories, and emotions, accept loss, and move through the grief process in a way that allows them to adaptively move on.

The trauma and grief caused by loss

Death and tragic loss are always painful. For some, however, the loss can be so distressing that it interferes with their ability to assimilate the loss and function.

When people’s memories are not processed appropriately, triggers constantly bring negative emotions to the surface and prevent them from moving forward. EMDR therapy helps people integrate traumatic experiences into their wider memory network, so they can begin to deal with their grief.

EMDR is a three-pronged psychotherapeutic approach that integrates treatment focusing on the past, present, and future. We identify and process past memories tied to the loss, present triggers that evoke distressing emotions, and create positive ways to move forward into the future.

The process of EMDR therapy

The EMDR treatment protocol involves eight phases.

First, we get to know our clients and gather relevant history while building a relationship. We examine the aspects of the loss that are most disturbing to the client, and explore how the loss impacts them in the present day. We also discuss the client’s goals and what they want for their future. We develop a list of memories to reprocess with EMDR therapy, which are memories that the client finds most disturbing related to their grief and loss. This may be the moment they learned of a loved one’s passing, a specific disturbing image or scene they witnessed, or the anger they felt (or still feel) towards God or a specific person for what happened.

In phase two, we prepare clients by educating them about the grief process and helping them develop coping strategies to get through the day-to-day challenges they face. We also inform them of what to expect during EMDR sessions and the effects they may experience as a result of the treatment.

In phase three, we move to activate and stimulate one of the memories identified for reprocessing. The client is asked to describe the troubling images, negative beliefs, and disturbing emotions the memory evokes. We also help them pinpoint where they feel the effects of these negative beliefs and emotions in their bodies.

In phase four, we ask the client to think of the specific memory while pairing bilateral stimulation. Bilateral stimulation may be provided in the form of bilateral eye movements, tapping, or auditory tones. While bilateral stimulation may sound odd, it is an important component of the therapy, and without it, clients do not achieve the same effects. Bilateral stimulation helps the brain integrate information, can produce a calming effect, and supports memory integration to a point of adaptive resolution.

Eventually, a client reports that the target memory no longer causes distress or upset. They report that there are no disturbing emotions, images, thoughts, or body sensations that remain in relation to the memory. This does not mean the client has forgotten the memory, or the loss, but that it no longer causes overwhelming emotions for them.

At this point, we move into phase five, which identifies a positive, adaptive statement the client now holds about themselves in relation to the memory. This might be something like “I can move forward,” “I will survive this,” or “they will always live inside of my heart.”

Once a new adaptive statement has been identified and integrated, we finally scan the body for any remaining disturbance, as part of phase six. In this phase, we conduct a body scan to ensure the body is free of any remaining distress or disturbance related to the memory reprocessed.

Every session ends with closure, which ensures the client is regulated and does not leave the session feeling overwhelmed with emotion or especially vulnerable. We may use grounding, mindfulness, or guided imagery exercises to soothe the nervous system after reprocessing.

The final stage — or re-evaluation — occurs during the next session. We assess clients’ psychological state and evaluate how well they maintained the positive shifts we saw during the previous appointment. We discuss any processing that took place before the meeting, as well as the emergence of disturbing dreams, flashbacks, or memories. The information we gain during this stage guides future treatment.

How EMDR therapy addresses grief from a traumatic loss

Grief is a normal part of life, as we all experience loss and death. EMDR is not a means to skip over the necessary stages of grief that are part of healthy grieving, but EMDR can be useful to help people get unstuck in their grief process, work through traumatic grief, and find a way forward. EMDR does not erase your memories of a loved one, or mean you will forget what happened. EMDR instead helps clients more easily connect to happy memories that may remain following loss, and unburden themselves from a grief process that seems frozen in time or prevents them from moving on.

Our clients often wonder how long they will need to grieve. This answer is different for everyone. As therapists, we never want to impose limitations on our client’s expression of grief. Setting such limitations would invalidate the validity of a client’s self-healing process. How long we grieve a loss depends on what the loss was, as well as how significantly that loss impacts our lives. Our trauma history and support system also have an impact on the grief process.

Much of our pain lies beneath the surface. Issues of personal responsibility and guilt may arise as clients work through intense grief. They may also need to work through unresolved losses that happened years before, and emotions related to their own mortality. Grief is complex, and there is no “one size fits all.” While there are well-known stages to grief, what those stages look like and how long they persist can vary significantly from one person to the next.

I can personally speak to the power of EMDR after a significant loss. I used EMDR to work through the very complicated experience of losing my father to suicide a few years ago. The end of his life ended in utter tragedy, and there were many aspects to grieve. From the loss of dreams, the loss of safety, and the loss of a primary attachment figure in my life.

EMDR was not a means to jump ahead and skip the necessary feelings I needed to feel, but it helped me move through that complicated process with a bit more ease, and it alleviated a lot of suffering. I find myself left with the happy memories of him and our relationship, rather than the horrific memories that shaped the end of his life. If you are grieving and looking for some relief from your suffering, I encourage you to consider EMDR as a potential therapy. It won’t erase the pain. But it can significantly lighten the load.

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