Coping With Sudden Death

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.

In addition to dealing with the physical and emotional shock, those experiencing loss of sudden death are also faced with having to cope with an abruptly altered world where any idea of certainty they may have had in the past has suddenly vanished.

“This idea of certainty in our life is an illusion which is in place so we can function in everyday life," explains Weil. "But nothing can be certain. Sudden death throws this notion of certainty in our face so what we thought we knew is suddenly altered and our lives are very different, thus we realize it is all an illusion. The alternative is to say, I am going to live in the present moment now, and to realize that life is a gift.”

Of course, we all experience grief differently. According to Florence Isaacs, writer for Legacy’s blog, "Widow in the World” and author of When the Man You Love is Ill, there is no one time-frame to grieve. “The latest research shows we are far more resilient than we realize when coping with death," she told AlterNet. "Some people negotiate the grief process rather quickly. Others take longer. There is no ‘right’ amount of time to grieve.” 

Linn-Gust agrees, adding that people deal with grief in many different ways and so it is important to work within the transition after the loss in order to have a meaningful life. A way to do that is to be open to the idea that you still have a bond with that person.

“It’s important to know that your loved one is still with you," she said. "There won’t be any new memories, but no one can take away what you had with that person who is now gone. Some people like to talk about that person. It is important in the grieving process to be able to remember the person."

First proposed by Elsabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, people experience five stages of grief when coping with loss (as described):

  1. Denial and Isolation: “This can’t be happening.”  
  2. Anger“Why is this happening? Who is to blame.”
  3. Bargaining“Make this not happen, and in return I will ____.”
  4. Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”
  5. Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what happened.”

Unfortunately, not everybody makes it to the final stage of acceptance. Especially in sudden death situations, many of us cannot move beyond our anger or denial or make peace with the way a person has died. In the acceptance phase, it is not that the person is even happy, but rather that they have come to terms with the situation. 

Yet the question that remains is whether it is really possible to move forward from grieving the sudden death of a loved one in order to have a truly fulfilling life in the future.

Linn-Gust believes so. “Moving on is not necessarily the right word, rather it is a process of moving forward which is what life is about," she said. "I think we all have that opportunity to move forward. There are some people to some extent who have chosen not to do so. Grief is a process and unique to all of us. You have to be willing to go through the process. If you are not, it will come back and bite you.

“People are afraid because it is so painful to walk through it. If you don’t deal with grief, it can manifest into physical symptoms and people end up getting sick. Life is about continuing to go forward. Some people get more hard knocks than others. It is inevitable and loss is inevitable,” she said.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in overcoming the loss of sudden death is the fact that many people become caught up in the pain and feel guilty at the prospect of laughing or having a good time, as if it implies they didn’t love the person enough. Weil says the ultimate obstacle is dealing with the question "why?”

“Any death leads to the question, ‘is there something more I could have done?’ We get stuck on the question of 'why.' But there is no physiological or theological answer as to 'why' that would satisfy you where you would say ‘I am ok.’ There is no answer. It is the unanswerable question. If you can get comfortable not knowing that answer, just knowing it is, that’s when you can start to heal,” she said.

It is also important to bring meaning to the loss of a loved one in order to move forward. Some people walk in fundraisers to help raise awareness, while others merely reach out to other people. Therapeutic laughter also helps when we are grieving as a mechanism to cope.

Isaacs adds, “It is important to accept that you need help and support from those around you to get through this, and beware of isolating yourself. Some people choose to join a bereavement group or consider grief counseling,” she said.

When does the grieving process become problematic to the extent that it is time to seek out extra support? According to Linn-Gust, if your grief continues for a prolonged period of time or you feel your life isn’t worth living or are unable to function, it may be time to seek help.

“When a person can’t get out of bed and all they do is think about that deceased person or find themselves continually abusing something like alcohol, it’s time to seek help. The key is to be able to admit that you can’t cope. Some people also start to feel suicidal, thinking, ‘I have to have that connection back with that person’ and sometimes they think the only way to do that is to end their lives,” she said.

It is essential to seek help from close family members or friends and spend time in a place you feel safe. It is also important to remember that grieving is a process that takes time with no quick-fix solution. As Weil says, “We don’t deal with loss by moving on and forgetting, we heal by bringing them with us wherever we go, because they are part of everything we do."


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