Death of any kind leaves a hole in the hearts of those left behind. The grieving process that takes place is similar no matter if the death was anticipated or sudden. There are, however, differences that can range from subtle to extreme.
When someone has a terminal illness, friends and family have time to say the things they have always wanted to say. There is time to get affairs in order and make necessary arrangements. When death is sudden, the shock is often greater. Friends and loved ones miss out on the healing sense of closure. With traumatic or sudden death, there is no warning, and no one has a chance to say goodbye.
Whether you are coping with the death of a loved one or you are trying to help someone else cope, it’s important to understand how an anticipated death and a sudden death impact the grieving process.
When a loved one is diagnosed with an illness that is terminal, loved ones may first react with a sense of disbelief. The diagnosed person and their family members may seek second and third opinions. This is normal.
As death nears, the family may become angry that there is no help available. There may be extreme frustration that medical technology cannot cure the disease. Depression and sadness settle in along with hope for the relief of their loved one.
Families and friends react differently to imminent death. People may draw together or they may pull apart. No matter how the family reacts as a whole, the grieving process is the same for each individual, although they may move through that process at different speeds.
Typically, friends and family of the deceased will experience feelings of anger, guilt, sadness and depression. Family members may attempt to bargain with a higher power, and they may eventually move into the acceptance stage. When death is anticipated, many people refer to the grieving process as “normal.”
Sudden or Traumatic Death
For most people, a sudden or traumatic death is a shock. It is often difficult to cope with when compared to a death that was expected. This sudden death may have been the result of a heart attack, stroke, crime or trauma. The people left behind often feel similar to those who have been assaulted; there was no time to emotionally prepare for the event.
When a sudden death is violent, emotions are raw. Even if people do not have knowledge of the exact events surrounding the death, they replay the event in their minds over and over. They imagine what their loved one went through, and they imagine that their loved one was in great pain. These feelings can lead to guilt over not being able to have saved the decedent from their pain.
If death is violent, whether due to accident, injury or crime, the body is often damaged. This can be extremely difficult to deal with for those who have been left behind. This is especially true if the family members are unable to view the body. There is a sense of closure that viewings bring that is not gained in these circumstances.
Another factor that is involved in a sudden or traumatic death is the senselessness of it all. People know that death occurs; it is a part of life. When a loved one is killed because of a senseless act due to the carelessness of someone else, the death is that much harder to accept. When you know that the death of your loved one could have been prevented, it becomes much more difficult to cope with.
Emotional Toll of Traumatic Death
No matter how it occurs, death is never easy to deal with. It is wrought with even more emotion when the death was sudden or traumatic. The grieving process is much the same as in a natural or expected death, but there is a different emotional toll when death is unexpected.
There are a variety of complex issues that are raised for those left behind, particularly family members and very close friends. Post traumatic stress disorder is not uncommon. It is also typical for the grief process to be amplified. Survivors and remaining loved ones often experience:
- Shock – Because the death was sudden and unexpected, surviving family members may literally go into shock. This is the body’s way of protecting a person from severe emotional distress and pain.
- Anxiety – People who are not typically anxious may find themselves dealing with an anxiety problem. This is brought on by feelings of vulnerability and a sense of their safe world being shattered.
- Guilt – Guilt may be felt for a range of reasons. In the case of an accident, the survivor may feel guilty because they were not the person that was killed. In the case of crime or negligence, guilt may be felt because the person was unable to foresee the event.
- Fear – When death is sudden, there is no time to get affairs in order. Family members may experience fear over finances, living arrangements or loss of social status. This fear may alternate with guilt that the person is more concerned with themselves than the actual death itself.
- Shame – If the death was due to suicide, survivors may feel a sense of shame due to the social stigma associated with this type of death. They may be embarrassed to answer questions or to talk about the decedent.
While the grieving process is the same for any type of death, those dealing with a sudden or traumatic loss may feel each stage more deeply, or they may move through the stages slower or faster than what people consider to be “normal.” If you are coping with or trying to help someone cope with a traumatic death, understanding the heightened emotions involved with such an event is beneficial. Remember that no two people grieve in the same way, and that there is professional help available.
Updated: October 2, 2014