Healing from a sudden or traumatic death…

One of the hardest experiences we may confront in life is the sudden, unexpected death of someone we love.  Loss is painful enough, but sudden loss is shocking.  The shock multiplies our pain and intensifies our grief.

With a traumatic death, the healing process can be very difficult. People often describe it as feeling like “they are going crazy.” Although your experience with traumatic grief and the healing process will be unique, it may be helpful to understand what others have gone through when healing from sudden or traumatic loss.

Traumatic grief generally occurs when a death is:

  • sudden, unexpected, and/or violent,
  • caused by the actions of another person, an accident, suicide, homicide, or other catastrophe,
  • from natural causes when there is no history of illness, like a heart attack or stroke.

There are factors which make this experience even more difficult.

  • There may be no positive confirmation of the death or no physical body recovered. These circumstances make it difficult to grasp the reality that the death has occurred. Only when that    reality is accepted can you begin to move on from the traumatic event to healing the pain that          comes from your experience.
  • Since the death was not anticipated, legal and financial affairs may be complicated. Loss of income can threaten your family’s security.
  • The role your loved one held in the family is lost. It takes time for your family to reorganize and
  • There may be complex organizations, such as the media, legal, and/or criminal justice system involved in your life as a result of the traumatic death.

Common Emotional Reactions:

Shock:     Physical and emotional shock may last a long time. Ongoing memories or dreams about the event may occur for months. It may help to break the cycle of recurring thoughts by writing or talking about them.

Fear and Anxiety:     You may find yourself anxious or fearful doing simple activities such as being alone in the dark, taking a shower, or opening a closed door. Anxious feelings are a natural, expected response, but when anxiety prevents returning to your usual routines over a long time, it’s important to seek help from a physician or therapist.

Guilt:     You may experience guilt over things said or done, or not said or done. You may feel guilty for surviving. Knowing that these feelings are not rational does not help to alleviate the pain of guilt and regret. Let yourself find support from a therapist, clergy or a grief support group. Above all, be merciful with yourself.

Denial:    Due to the shock of a sudden or traumatic death, it may be difficult for you to immediately accept the reality of the death. This is your body’s normal defensive reaction that is designed to help you gradually acknowledge the loss over time.

Anger:     Anger and rage may come from the feelings of helplessness and powerlessness you are left with after a traumatic death. Look for a support or advocacy group to help you deal with the anger and sense of victimhood that may result from traumatic loss.

You may feel that your world is shattered.

Sudden loss gives a person no chance to prepare.  You may feel “cheated” that you could not say goodbye in the way you would have liked – with special words, a kiss, a hug, or some other act with personal meaning. The loss is one that doesn’t make sense, yet you may try to create meaning from the terrible event.  You may be searching for answers, and confronting the fact that life is not fair. The world may not feel safe to you. You may become fearful and uncertain, or angry and frustrated.  Your beliefs about the world and how it functions may be shattered.  You may be questioning your spiritual or religious beliefs.  These are natural responses.

In the initial days, weeks, and months, you may go back and forth from numbness to intense emotions.

In general, it may take two or more years for a person to go through the grieving process and adapt to a major loss. With a traumatic death, the time period may be longer. However, the intensity and frequency of painful periods usually diminishes as time passes.

It is possible that you may feel worse a year or more after the death. The numbness that helped protect you in the early months is gone and the full pain of the loss is very real.  Your family and friends may have gone back to their own lives, and are not as available to offer support.

Holidays and special family events may trigger intense feelings of grief. When a similar traumatic event occurs, you may feel that you are reliving your experience of loss. Involvement with lawsuits or the justice system can cause upsurges of grief during the entire course of that involvement. If you find coping gets more difficult, it may be helpful to seek counseling.

You may feel out of control because an event has occurred that is beyond your control.

Putting more structure into your daily routine can help you manage these feelings. It’s often helpful to keep lists, write notes, or keep a regular schedule. There are new roles to learn, new problems to solve.

You Can Heal.

Although it may be hard to imagine at this moment, try to remember that people do recover from sudden and traumatic loss. You also can ultimately move through this terrible pain and begin to heal.  It helps to bear in mind that emotional pain will lessen, and that you will not grieve forever. You can honor your loved one with your memories and ongoing love.

Adapted  from  “Facing Sudden Loss” by Judy Tatelbaum, MSW, and “Reactions to Sudden or Traumatic Loss” by Barbara J. Paul, Ph.D.

Provided by Gerard’s House, a grief support center for children, teenagers and their families in Santa Fe, New Mexico. For more information please contact us at (505) 424-1800 or gerardshouse.org.

This article was published in “The Grieving Heart,” written and edited by Bob Dorsett, LLC, www.silentseas.net

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