Dealing with a sudden death
Nothing so determines the way we deal with grief as the suddenness of the death. Those who experience a sudden death have no time to say good-bye or I love you, no time to resolve unfinished business, to prepare for life without the loved ones, or even to imagine it. The bereaved are utterly shocked. And that shock takes a long time to get over.
When death comes without warning, grieving is slow and difficult – as people who have experienced both sudden death and anticipated death have noted many times.
The pain of losing someone you love quickly is not ultimately greater than the pain of losing someone slowly. But the shock is so strong that it makes it more difficult to adapt. For instance, research indicates that mothers who have lost a baby to sudden infant death syndrome have difficulty getting pregnant afterward. And a Harvard University study comparing women under the age of forty-five whose husbands died after a prolonged illness with a similar group whose husbands died without warning found that the “sudden widows” felt more anxious, guilty, and depressed than those whose husbands died from an anticipated death.
As the immediate shock wears off, a residue of numbness can remain. That feeling temporarily shields mourners from the avalanche of feelings, allowing them to function, even to be active. As that barrier crumbles, grievers feel battered by a tempest of powerful emotions. With sudden death, those feelings can linger for a long time. How long, is a question psychologists have not answered. Erich Lindenmann, in an influential article written in 1944 after the famous Coconut Grove nightclub fire in Florida, suggested that with help, an ordinary grief reaction could generally be “settled” in four to six weeks. In contrast, recent research conducted by Darrin R. Lehmen, Camille B. Wortman, and Allah F. Williams, indicates that, four to seven years after the death of a spouse or a child in an automobile crash, at least a third of the mourners they studied were still depressed and suffering the aftereffects of the death. Their data clearly suggested that lasting distress after the traumatic death of a spouse or child is neither unusual nor a sign of failure to cope, as many people believe.
In a sudden death the bereaved have no preparation and no time to gradually absorb the reality that the world was about to change dramatically. Instead there is a sudden destruction of the world they used to know. There is no gradual transition, nor time to make changes. The sudden massive gap between the way the world was, and the world is after the death, makes the loss so disruptive that recovery is often complicated.
After a sudden death, many mourners look back on the days preceding the death. Were there any signs that they overlooked? They attempt to restructure what happened and often blame themselves for missing some important clues. This often leads to unnecessary guilt and frustration. In most cases there was probably no way the survivors could have known about the impending death.
Another tendency of mourners of a sudden death is the frustration at the missed opportunity to say good-bye, and finish unfinished business. The lack of time to bring an important relationship to a positive close causes much anguish to the loved ones. They wish they would have known, in order to say and do what they wanted to, to express love, to apologize, to explain things, and so many other things important in a close relationship. The only solution to this anguish is to realize and accept that tomorrow is promised to no-one. It can help bring the awareness that loved ones must be dealt with on a timely basis. There must never be too much unfinished business. It is an ironic but positive consequence of sudden death that it makes one appreciate life more than ever before. Something meaningful can be derived from such a tragedy.
Many people in the early stages of grief focus on things they wish they’d done differently. Regret takes over, sad scenes from the past cloud the mind. It’s important to address some of the unfinished business that undoubtedly exists between you and your loved one. It’s also important during the time to allow yourself to experience grief in all is its permutations. Feeling sad, hopeless, moody, lonely, obsessed, irritable, discouraged, afraid, depressed, angry, and guilty is part of the package.
It helps to remember moments of love, even though these memories may bring some pain. But it takes time for that to happen. The best thing you can do in the meantime is to ignore anyone else’s expectations about how you should grieve and how long it should take.
Being busy can provide a constructive and positive distraction from the work of grief, but when it gets out of hand, it can also be a way to avoid grieving… However, being overwhelmed is an appropriate reaction when someone you love dies. If you avoid those feelings, all you do is delay the mourning.
Many people who have felt shattered by a sudden death cannot imagine adjusting to the loss. But people do adjust. As they grieve, they change. Many become stronger, wiser, more fully themselves, more able to cope. It’s a slow process but a real one. The most important factor may be the belief that you will one day be able to live happily, despite your loss. That attitude – and the knowledge that other mourners have survived in similar situations – can help even in the harshest of circumstances, such as multiple deaths.
Grieving: How to go on living when someone you love dies, Therese A. Rando and
Giving Sorrow Words, Candy Lightner