Why EMDR therapy is the most effective treatment in grief recovery

All grief is traumatizing. 

Whether the death of a loved one is expected (such as a long-term illness) or whether it was out of the blue – losing someone we love forever is one of the hardest things that many of us will have to endure at some point.


Grief is the acute pain we feel that accompanies loss. Since it reflects the person we love, the feelings of grief can be profound and everlasting.

Losing a significant loved one can cause many emotional and physical responses, and frequently a newly bereaved person’s mental health is one of the first things to get impacted.


Elizabeth Kubler Ross developed the sub-stages of grief that people go through after losing a loved one, often referred to as ”the five stages of grief”.

According to Kubler-Ross, bereaved individuals go through several stages of grief before reaching the final stage of acceptance. These stages include:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

Grief is universal

Over the years, the five stages of the grief model have received limitless backlash, all of which prompted Elizabeth Kubler Ross to review her grief model. 

Kubler-Ross noted that the sub-stages of grief are not linear and that some grievers may not experience any of the stages at all.

Still, other people might only experience one or two stages of grief (such as anger and denial).

Substance abuse

A loved ones’ death does not just trigger the induction of grief. Suffering can also get induced by the loss of:

  • A relationship
  • Job
  • Career aspiration
  • Personal identity

Grief can also get brought on by a change in circumstances such as receiving a terminal health diagnosis, moving home, career change and even substance abuse.

Normal vs traumatic grief

We all experience different variations of grief – and how this presents in every one of us will be as unique as we are.

At some stage, we will all lose something or someone that created additional meaning in our lives – whether it be a person, job, location, daily routine, or health experience.

Throughout these experiences, we may even find ourselves somewhere on the ”’five stages of grief” spectrum.

Complicated grief

According to grief specialists, the marked difference between ”normal” vs ”traumatic” or ”complicated grief” is that in complicated grief, the loss is unexpected such as the sudden death of a parent or sibling.

Whereas, when it comes to normal grief, death is anticipated, such as when a close relative has been ill for some time.

One of the consequences of complicated grief is that it frequently triggers post-survival mechanisms within bereaved individuals and them having to deal with the loss itself.

It’s impossible to say what level of preparedness makes people more equipped to deal with the sudden death of a loved one compared to others’ since the experience is immeasurable and people have different responses and coping mechanisms.

EMDR: A healing tool in transforming traumatic grief

Many helpful therapies are designed to support people confronted with ”normal” and ”traumatic grief”. For example, talk therapies such as psychotherapy and individual therapy are invaluable resources for the newly bereaved.

Talking therapy allows people to make sense of their grief and their emotions, behaviours and reactions.

However, talk treatments often produce limiting results, mainly when trauma is an inherent aspect of the bereavement experience.

Emotional distress

There are some instances where the emotional distress of complicated grief results in trauma becoming locked in the body.

Fight and flight

When something terrible happens, humans often go into fight, flight and freeze mode – these survival mechanisms are designed to ”get us through” a problematic or life-threatening event.

In cases where a griever gets exposed to chronic trauma – such as witnessing the long-term health decline of a spouse, mother or father, or when sudden death occurs, the body can become stuck in the fight, flight or freeze stages.

Traumatic events

Traumatic events encourage various chemicals and adrenaline in the body to spike, all of which gives people the coping strategies to get through.

Unfortunately, the protective button that gets switched on during a traumatic event doesn’t always turn off for grievers, even in instances where there is no longer evidence of a threat.

All this results in trauma becoming trapped in the body, like the brain and the central nervous system.

Trapped energies

Trapped trauma, or as trauma specialist Peter Levine described it,” trapped energies” remain present in the body because the biological energies created during a traumatic event have not been discharged or released from the person’s system.

The symptoms of trauma and PTSD caused by trapped energies in the body created during the traumatic event are kept ‘frozen’ in our bodies.

Mind/body connection

It is the successful completion of trauma that would allow these energies to get discharged. Unfortunately, humans often do not allow this process to occur mainly because of fear and the likelihood of social exclusion.

For example, qualities like self-control get viewed as an admirable trait in society, and the release of trapped trauma is, to varying degrees, about relinquishing some of that control. In essence, to appear less self-sufficient puts us at risk of social reprimand.

Grievers, for example, tend to suppress the residue energy of trauma to present an ideal version of themselves; to everyone around them ”they are coping just fine” but their internal worlds tell a different story.

Trapped energies produce persistent symptoms of trauma that many people find hard to cope with and even more challenging to understand.

Trauma symptoms

The symptoms of trapped trauma can vary from person to person and depend mainly on the circumstances and whether or not someone has other co-occurring mental health conditions.


Typically, though, the symptoms of trapped trauma usually include:

  • Bouts of depression and anxiety
  • Painful and distressing memory flashbacks (related to the traumatic incident)
  • Intrusive thoughts and avoidance behaviors associated with the traumatizing event
  • Taking up substance abuse as a way of coping with unpleasant symptoms
  • Increased stress levels
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

Why EMDR is the most effective therapy in grief recovery

Broadly, EMDR therapy which stands for eye movement desensitization reprocessing is a trauma treatment designed to treat trauma symptoms effectively.

EMDR was created by Doctor Francine Shapiro in 1995 when, on the off chance, she discovered that lateral eye movements decreased the intensity of disturbing material that was present in her life at the time.

Shapiro was fascinated by this earlier discovery and spent numerous years studying this scientific phenomenon.

In short, Shapiro found that bilateral stimulation, e.g. stimulation that occurs on both sides of the body, whether it be through tapping, sound or eye movements (or another stimulus), discharged trapped trauma from the brain, which made the memories and material more viable.

Trapped trauma in the brain leads to a permanent fight, flight and freeze reactions. EMDR transforms traumatic images into memories that no longer have a devastating impact on the individual.


As well as having to live with trapped trauma, grievers and trauma survivors get confronted with the physiological challenges of trauma and an accumulation of negative beliefs associated with a traumatic event.

For instance, guilt is one of the main symptoms of grief. Grievers very often blame themselves for the circumstances surrounding their loved one’s death and very often use terms like ” I could have done better” or ‘‘I should have visited so and so more often.”

One of the advantages of EMDR is that it challenges any negative beliefs by replacing these cognition’s with positive ones such as ”I did the best I could” and ”I’m deserving of love.”


EMDR has a two-pronged approach, (1) to target the physiological responses of grief and trauma by releasing trapped energies from the body and (2) to challenge any negative beliefs by replacing them with more self-serving beliefs.

The process of EMDR operates on a somatic level – where the therapist guides patients’ to ”feel” the traumatic images and associated negative beliefs in the body.

EMDR aims to facilitate the transformation of negative images into non-intrusive memories and transform limiting beliefs into positive ones.

It is clear from the literature that the practice of EMDR therapy is the most effective when treating cases of complicated grief by helping to resolve the long-term suffering caused by the trauma of grief.

Contact us

If you or someone you love has been dealing with the painful symptoms of grief and trauma, the team at Camino Recovery are always here to offer help and support. 

As part of our customized program, we offer EMDR treatment for those who are ready to address difficult events from their past, freeing them up to live a more harmonious, fulfilled life – one that is free from the clutches of trauma.

Contact our team today for more details.

Don Lavender

Don specialized in addiction studies, earning an MDiv and a master's in Management, Administration, and Counseling. As a priest, he supported Step 5s in local treatment centers for nearly 40 years, excelling in "family systems work" in the addiction field.

Additionally, Don pioneered equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) in the US and UK during the 1990s. He authored "Equine Utilized Psychotherapy: Dance with those that run with laughter" and gained media recognition, including appearances on 'the Trisha Show' and features in The Daily Telegraph.

In the early 2000s, Don and his wife, Meena, founded Camino Recovery in Spain, providing tailored addiction treatment programs aimed at fostering happier lives.

More from Don Lavender

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