Better Me

Navigating Grief After a Sudden Death

A husband suddenly loses his wife due to complications from COVID-19. A parent gets the call her son has died in a car accident. Another is told a friend has committed suicide.

When someone dies from a suicide, car accident, overdose, pandemic or other sudden loss, it presents a profound, immensely complex challenge for those who remain.

Grief is overwhelming and one of the most painful emotions any human will ever encounter. While the pain of grief is the same whether the death is sudden or anticipated, a sudden loss is shocking and disorienting, reducing our ability to cope with and understand what has happened.

“When someone you know and love dies you aren’t just mourning a loss, you are also dealing with the trauma of how they died,” said Ricki Ray, MTS, CBC, a Banner hospice bereavement counselor. “Whereas with an anticipated death, we can make sense of the situation and brace ourselves emotionally.”

“Grief is a process and something that is unique to all of us,” said Sarah Payne, DO, medical director of Banner Hospice in Phoenix. “It can be painful to walk through, but if you don’t, it can manifest into physical symptoms and you may end up getting sick. It’s important to accept help and support so you and your family move forward.”

If you’ve recently lost a dear friend or loved one, you too may be grappling with a myriad of emotions and thoughts—from sadness and guilt to anger and fear.

Together Ricki Ray and Dr. Payne answer some common questions surrounding an unexpected loss to help you move through the grief and forward with life.

What is the grief process?

Grief by definition is an emotional process of coping with a loss. You can’t process grief intellectually. While we wish it was clean-cut and linear in nature, grief can be messy and painful. It is a journey you must embrace rather than avoid.

While some will wear their emotions on their sleeves and be outwardly emotional, you may experience grief internally unable to cry. Coping with loss is very personal and singular to your experience. The best thing you can do is try not to resist and prolong the process and lean into the emotions.

“Grief is an emotional work that is natural, normal and necessary,” Ray said. “However, our culture tends to believe that anything that hurts is bad, so many of us have not been taught how to properly deal with grief and loss. In avoidance, you may seek other means to release emotions or distract from the pain, such as busyness, food and substance abuse, isolation, shopping or excessive sleeping.”

Famed grief expert, David Kessel, the co-author of “On Grief and Grieving” with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, MD, said the five stages – denial, anger,  bargaining, depression and acceptance – are emotional tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. In your bereavement, you will spend different lengths of time working through steps and express each stage with different levels of intensity. These stages don’t come in any order and not everyone expresses them all.

Pressing into the emotions you do experience, however, can help with your learning to live with the one you lost.

“While working with children going through loss, we sing the “Going on a Bear Hunt,” which I think articulates the grief process well,” Ray said. “We can’t go under it. We can’t go around it or over it. We have to go through grief to find healing and peace.”

What things can help me and my family cope?

Following a death, we are often surrounded by family and friends, there may be cards and flowers, gatherings and sharing of remembrances of the one who died. After the responses and attention trickle down, the reality and depth of the situation may begin to hit home. And with a sudden death, it may leave you particularly vulnerable.

“A common tendency is to isolate; however, it is important for grievers to talk to someone in whom they can confide and be honest about their feelings,” Ray said. Some grievers may have a friend or family member they can talk to, while others may not have a natural support system.”

Ray suggests some of these coping tips:

  • Find a grief support group where you can share thoughts and feelings with those who have experienced a similar loss. Banner Hospice offers Grief Recovery Support Groups at locations throughout the valley open to the community at no cost. There are also bereavement camps for children and families, such as the Dottie Kissinger Bereavement Camp, a free community program to help families cope with loss.
  • Talk to professionals, family and friends to help gain perspective about the death and decrease feelings of guilts and “what if” thinking.
  • Gradually resume activities that provide some “normalcy” and familiar patterns of behavior.
  • Accept your feelings – even the unpleasant ones – because they are normal and natural. Your feelings are a way to express and process grief and won’t last forever.
  • Pay close attention to physical and emotional health. If you experience ongoing or severe physical symptoms and/or have suicidal thoughts, it is important to talk with your physician or reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

“The main thing is to be heard and not feel isolated,” Dr. Payne said. “I had a couple as patients. They had been married for many years when the husband died suddenly. Everything in her life and routine suddenly changed. The loss was so much that she began to have suicidal ideations. Talking with me during a well check about these thoughts, we were able to intercede, surround her with love and get her the care she needed.”

Will I ever find closure?

“The term ‘closure’ is frequently used after death, but it is a myth in regard to grief as there is no definitive end to grief,” Ray said. “Grief is not a shutting out, ending or termination of our feelings or missing of a loved one. We can’t just ‘get over it.’ A more accurate term is getting ‘complete’ with the loss as we resolve with ‘different, better or more’ questions. As we begin to move forward and heal, we still understand that feelings related to grief may bubble up from time to time and that is OK.”

It is common, particularly in sudden deaths, to repeatedly think about the “coulda, woulda, shouldas” (known as hindsight bias). Emotional recovery begins when you start to work through those questions on what you wish had been different, better and more. It is important to look at the relationship with your loved one or friend with honesty – the good and the bad – in order to achieve healing.

How can family and friends support us at this time?

The death of a loved one or friend has a ripple effect on everyone. While you may be going through immense grief, others may be grappling with their own emotions and thoughts of how to support you.

Ray provides some guidance for family and friends:

  • Understand and honor the uniqueness of how each person grieves and let that be OK. While many individuals may be grieving the loss of the same person, every relationship is unique to the two people who have it. Understanding this helps people not compare grief.
  • Help with practical things: yard work, airport runs, phone calls, child or pet care, picking up groceries.
  • Be a heart with ears. Grievers don’t want or need to be fixed. They just want to be heard.
  • Be honest. Grievers can smell dishonesty. If you don’t know what to say, let them know that you have no words but are there for them.

Takeaway

While death is inevitable for all of us at some point, when a loved one or friend suddenly dies, we are reminded of our fragility. Death is hard and grieving is a process.

You may feel that you shouldn’t move on with your life because somehow that means you are forgetting your loved one. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Slowly, and with care and support, you will naturally move to a place where you are feeling less sadness while still holding a special place in your heart for your loved one. The best way to move forward is by living in a way that honors your relationship and choosing to live life to its fullest potential.

To learn more about the bereavement and counseling services available at Banner Health, visit BannerHealth.com.

“Grief is the evidence of love – what greater way can we honor our loved ones than to grieve?”

- David Rosh, Banner Hospice Bereavement Counselor

Behavioral Health Hospice Relationships COVID-19

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