Coping with the unexpected death of a loved one
It was over 30 years ago when the telephone rang. My stepfather’s voice was flat and hollow. “Your brother is dead. He was jogging. A car hit him. The driver was drunk.”
I heard his words, but I felt numb. Driving that night to my parents’ house, I kept repeating to my wife, “I can’t believe it…It can’t be true”. But it was, and will always be so. He was 32 years old. I was 28.
Most of us feel shock and disbelief when we hear about the unexpected death of a loved one. While all of us ponder the subject of death from time to time, we are unprepared for its arrival. We assume that our family and friends will reach old age. Yet, it is not uncommon for death to come earlier, unexpectedly, through accident or illness. The initial disbelief and numbness we experience gives us time to focus our energies, and to prepare for the deep feelings which will follow.
It was not until the funeral, two days later that the numbness turned into grief. When I saw his body, I knew he was really gone. At that moment, I felt a pain that blasted through my body. Feeling as if my heart had been torn from my chest, I thought I would never stop crying…
When we realize that our loved one is gone, the currents of feeling can be very intense. For each of us, they ebb and flow with our own natural rhythms. It is natural to find ourselves unable to sleep, crying at the drop of a hat, feeling angry or numb. We ask the question, “Why did this happen?” We search for the answer.
Funerals and memorial services are very important. Steeped in ancient ceremony and ritual, they perform a rite of passage. Together, we mark the movement of our loved one from life to death. We celebrate their life and evaluate its impact on us. It is especially important for children to participate. Sparing them pain now will only make it worse later.
I stood on the hillside with my family. We were to spread Joey’s ashes on the countryside he loved. My usually rational scientist brother wailed in rage, as I stood helplessly by.
Unexpected loss can bring out anger and helpless fury. Often, we feel angry at the deceased for leaving us, as irrational as that emotion may be. This anger needs to be accepted and acknowledge when it arises, without judgment. Sometimes, we look for something or someone to blame, to hold responsible for this catastrophe. Frequently, we turn towards our religious beliefs to find comfort and meaning. We turn toward familiar ground.
Abrupt death can also bring up intense feelings of guilt. We may feel bad that we had not communicated important feelings to our relative or friend when they were alive. We forget that a relationship is measured through its entire life and not just by its ending.
Mourning is a healing process that moves us through many stops, like a train traversing varied terrain. On this journey, we have many moments in which our everyday lives cover over our grief. Other times we feel various mixtures of sadness, anger, emptiness, fear and loneliness. We need to respect these emotions, and allow them to run their course.
If you have an unexpected loss:
- Give yourself time. It takes awhile to integrate this loss into the fabric of your life.
- Be prepared for a wide range of emotions. Let yourself feel whatever arises.
- Talk to friends, family or clergy about your experience. Don’t keep your feelings inside.
- After unexpected loss, you may find yourself having irrational fears. These fears will lessen over time.
- Take time to consider what is important in your life. Celebrate all of the moments of closeness you do have with the people you love.