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Coping With Sudden Death

The sudden death of a loved one can change the survivors' lives forever.

Death is an unfortunate yet inevitable part of life that touches us all at one point or another. The difficulty with sudden death is that it is unforeseeable and often involves horrific and violent incidents such as a road accident, suicide or heart attack, which can hinder the ability to cope. The ramifications for those who lose a loved one to sudden death are disastrous and often tear families apart because there is no time to prepare or say goodbye. Life is changed forever.   

Last week, I phoned an ex co-worker to see how she was getting along. I had been meaning to call her for months, but time had escaped me and I got caught up in the bustle of life. The phone almost rang out before a man answered and said the following words: “Stephanie was on her way home from work last night and while crossing the road she was hit by a drunk driver and died at the scene.”

I’m sorry, what did you say? I listened to his words, but somehow was unable to process them in the moment, as if someone was speaking a foreign language to me. I don’t remember what I replied, only that the phone call ended. Just like that, Stephanie was gone. A vivacious 30-year-old woman, an only child and mother, who had dedicated her adult life to fighting for human rights: now she was suddenly dead. 

Upon hearing the news, I found myself confronted with an array of emotions, but the overall feeling was one of numbness. I somehow felt selfish in a way for complaining all week about how hard my life was. Now, it seemed, none of it really mattered.

We all react to sudden death in a variety of ways. Some scream, others can’t speak or move. Many remain in denial. Some feel helpless and overwhelmed, while exhaustion is also common. However, the greatest difficulty in dealing with sudden death is that there is no time to absorb what has happened, or prepare oneself how to cope.

Michelle Linn-Gust, past president of the American Association of Suicidology and author of Do They Have Bad Days in Heaven? Surviving the Suicide Loss of a Sibling, told AlterNet:

The reason sudden death can be more difficult to cope with than anticipated death is because in the former situation there is an additional sense of regret.  In an anticipated death situation, you have time to spend with that person or say something you wanted to say. In sudden death you don’t have that opportunity. So you are left with an empty chair—with things you didn’t say or do. In sudden death there is an added step in the coping phase which is helping a person to let go of the fact that they did not have the opportunity to say goodbye.

Nancy Weil, a grief specialist who is director of grief support at Mt Calvary Cemetery Group, has a slightly different viewpoint:

Any loss of a loved one is difficult whether sudden or anticipated. Grief is grief. I have not seen a single person say, ‘my grief is more than your grief because I didn’t know it was coming.' No one is ever ready to say goodbye to a loved one.  Even if you know in advance of death, it is still difficult. It has a different set of circumstances around it but it is no more difficult than the other. I don’t think you can rank grief. You can’t rank pain if your heart hurts. In both situations, you miss the person.

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