Grief arising from sudden and traumatic loss

by Good Grief

Although any bereavement is difficult to accept and process, it is well known that bereavement through sudden, accidental or traumatic can be a special case. This post aims to communicate a better understanding of how and why this type of loss can be particularly traumatic.

It is the sudden nature of these events that poses the problem. Examples of this type of loss include heart attacks, strokes, accidents, post-operative complications, allergic reactions and natural disasters. These events suddenly change our world leaving us shaken, unsure and vulnerable and with a sense that there is no order in the world.

For those left behind there may be special problems not associated with other types of loss. Specific issues may complicate and compound the level of grief and make the grieving process more intense. For example there may be unfinished business in that there was, most likely, no opportunity to say goodbye or to apologize for wrongdoing or arguments.

Sudden tragic events also tend to increase the vulnerability of those left behind. Fears of a repeat of the event that caused the loss or a general anxiety about unfamiliar situations may be present. A general pessimism about the future may also be experienced. Along with this may come losses of income or status which adds to the burden of the bereaved. In some cases the survivor may have experienced the traumatic event and may themselves be injured. This adds to the stress of the situation and may be accompanied by survivor’s guilt.

The article describes how grievers might react to various causes of death. This is useful in understanding our own feelings and in helping those we are close to deal with their loss.
Natural losses are illnesses and natural disasters—heart attack, stroke, earthquake or hurricane. With natural losses the resulting anger is directed towards the deceased or God. Human-caused losses include homicide, bombings, or acts of war and may be due to individual hostile actions. In human-caused disasters the survivor’s anger can be focused on the responsible person(s).

In accidental deaths there is no clear focus of intentionality. There is a high degree of intentionality with deaths such as homicide. Anger and blame for the death can be directed at a responsible person.
Illnesses like a sudden heart attack or ruptured aneurysm and natural disasters earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes may not be perceived as being preventable. Others such as homicide may be highly preventable. When deaths are perceived as preventable, there may be a strong sense of the “What if’s.”     Preventable deaths are likely to increase a sense of guilt, especially if one feels responsible or a sense of anger or if one holds others at fault.
With some losses, the death is instantaneous. Immediate death may leave feelings that the person who died had no time to prepare for the death. Many survivors find the knowledge of an instantaneous death to be comforting. In others situations, there is a question whether the deceased suffered pain or anxiety prior to dying. These memories, particularly if the person’s relative died in extremely distressing circumstances may dominate the person’s thoughts, rather than the memories of the person themselves. This can become a diversion from grieving for the deceased person disrupting the grieving process. Imaginings or memories of the traumatic death may cause so much distress, that remembering the person who died may be actively avoided.
The number of people affected by the loss can affect the intensity of grief. When large numbers of people are involved as with a devastating hurricane, the ability of others to offer support maybe limited, because of the extent of those involved. Conversely, highly public losses such as the September 11th tragedy, Littleton Shootings or losses due to war can result in a greater community response and demonstration of support, allowing survivors to bond and grieve together.
Some sudden losses are still somewhat expected, even if just retrospectively. The heart attack of someone at risk or the sudden loss of someone struggling with a life-threatening illness, frequently do not come as a total surprise. Other losses, such as accidents or random acts of violence, offer little to no forewarning and are a shock to the survivor.

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