Can Grief Cause PTSD?
No, it doesn’t, but C-PTSD (complex trauma) symptoms can become apparent after a loss.
It may be important to define some of the terms that are used when talking about grief:
Bereavement refers to the experience of having lost someone close.
Grief is the psychobiological response to bereavement whose distinctive feature is a blend of yearning and sadness, along with thoughts, memories, and images of the deceased person. Since feeling sad because the loved ones are gone is common, and to missing them is prolonged, grief could be considered permanent. However, the acute, all-consuming intensity usually moderates over time, as grief becomes deeper, less intrusive, and integrated into our lives.
Mourning is the array of psychological processes that are set in motion by bereavement in order to moderate and integrate grief by coming to terms with the loss and reorienting to a world without our loved one in it.
I have mentioned that complex trauma can be latent for years without showing its existence. Many people learn to live altered and consumed but believe that it’s part of who they are without noticing that life is more difficult for them than for others.
But when something difficult happens, even when it doesn't seem to be life-threatening, it can affect the person in ways that seem insurmountable. That’s probably because of previous traumatization.
There is a name to call what you are asking: Complicated Grief.
People that suffer from Complicated Grief are caught up in rumination about the circumstances of the death, worry about its consequences, and present excessive avoidance of reminders of the loss. They are unable to comprehend the finality and consequences of the loss, they resort to excessive avoidance of reminders of the loss as they are tossed helplessly on waves of intense emotion (Shear, 2012).
Similarities with PTSD
As you can see, the symptoms are similar to those of PTSD, but what happens is that the trauma symptoms appear not as a consequence of the loss but they are triggered by the loss and show up to indicate the existence of previous dysregulation of the nervous system since the loss can’t be metabolized, and the person feels overwhelmed.
Some people mix the terms “grief” and “depression.” They are not the same. Both bring sadness, and both cause disruption, but that all they have in common. Depression is a mental disorder. Grief is not.
Even when you ask about grief, it’s important to mention that loss alone could cause PTSD if the loss of someone puts the person at risk. For example, if losing a husband puts the person at risk of homelessness, the loss could be the trigger of fear that could end up as PTSD. It’s not the loss itself but its consequences.