When your grieving client is triggered by a national event: Five things you can do

I spent part of this weekend watching all the coverage of John McCain’s death, mixed on Sunday with the shooting in Jacksonville. It was Loss 101 all weekend. I knew that Monday would bring a week of clients who were working on their own losses already and were going to be at the least impacted by the weekend’s news. For some it was going to bring back traumatic memories and cause renewed anxiety and moments of intense sadness they were no longer experiencing regularly.

What do we, as therapists, do to support our clients in the face of a news cycle filled with loss and the statements of grieving survivors? For our clients who have had loved ones murdered and who find themselves hearing gunshots on a video game screen when the news comes on?

  • Be prepared. Ask them if they are reacting to the news. They may not tell you, or they may be unaware that their heightened reactivity is being brought on by current events. Your insight might be their “ah ha” moment.
  • If they bring up the images they are seeing, inquire which ones resonate with them. For many who have experienced a loved one dying at home, seeing the hearse leaving the McCain family ranch was a bit wrenching. That is one moment no grieving person ever forgets. I guarantee it. In fact, when I wrote a piece this weekend for my grief sites about that moment, I had multiple responses- all of which referenced that one moment. The one they never forget.
  • Review their loss again if their loved one was murdered. I can almost guarantee they will have revisited it, and their fears for how their loved one felt when facing death, especially by gun. They will have been thinking about those killed this weekend, and the loved ones now joining them in the ranks of parents, family and friends of murder victims and mass murders.
  • Prepare them for more fallout emotionally and caution them that they should not expect it to be as intense as the response to their loved one’s death initially, or other subsequent times they have been triggered.
  • Give them some ways to manage their newly revived grief and help them identify some support systems they can reach out to who will be understanding of being triggered. Not everyone is understanding. Much of the population thinks that the worst of the grief should be over after the funeral, or a certain period of time. Clients are aware of that but caution them to think about who will be okay with them needing some extra support, so they will not be told they are overreacting or need to get past it. There are online groups that can be helpful if they do not have local friends to reach out to.

You are a major part of your client’s recovery from grief, even if you are not fully aware of it. They think about how to tell you how difficult it has been. They weigh your imagined responses. Help them find the words, and the support.


Jill Johnson-Young, LCSW