The death of a loved one under any circumstances is a harrowing experience, however when a sudden or traumatic death occurs as a result of a fatal incident or through medical causes, the challenges for those left behind are especially difficult. Receiving news like this will understandably shock them to the core as they have not had time to emotionally prepare for the death. Even though you can never be fully prepared for it, when a loved one has had a long-term illness, you may at least have had time to come to terms with their loss to some degree.
The initial shock
Generally, the first emotions after learning of a traumatic death are shock and numbness, often followed by disbelief or denial. There can also be a sense of frustration at being in a situation completely out of one’s control – there is nothing they can do to undo or ‘correct’ this terrible event.
It can be tough to know what to say or do when trying to support someone through this, and it is common to feel helpless, awkward or unsure what to do or say. You may be afraid of intruding or saying the wrong thing, and you may feel there’s little you can do. However, while you cannot take away their pain, you can provide much-needed comfort and support; there are many ways to help a grieving friend or family member, beginning with simply letting them know that you care.
Shock usually puts people on autopilot; they do routine things without really focusing on them and even lose their ability to carry out normal activities. Offering practical help with everyday tasks and duties at this time is a key way of giving your support.
While you cannot take away their pain, you can provide much-needed comfort and support.
In the event of an accident or unlawful death, a Police Family Liaison Officer may support the family during the initial stages of investigation. Your friend or relative may value your being with them at emotionally demanding meetings such as identifying the body or visiting funeral directors. Most people do not like to feel they are a burden to others, so make sure you let them know you are willing and available to be there for them.
Following this type of death the media may cause additional pressure, and the bereaved family may find the traumatic events of their loss written up in the pages of local or even national papers. If you can do so, offer to help them prepare a written statement or help select a photo to give to the media.
Once the initial shock subsides, the formalities are dealt with, and the funeral service has been held, reality will begin to sink in. This is often the point where visits, phone calls and support begin to lessen, so letting the bereaved person know you are still there to talk to and rely on for practical assistance is vital.
Everyone expresses their emotions differently and your friend or relative may experience feelings of anger, guilt or frustration as well as physical reactions to grief such as lack of appetite and sleep. With sudden death, the absence of an opportunity to say goodbye or put things right can be an added complication. You may find that they need to go over the circumstances again and again until they are as sure of what happened as they can be. Assure them that these are normal reactions and that because they had no time to prepare for it, it’s important that they take time to process their thoughts.
Again, one of the best ways to help them do this is to be available for them to talk to, however, you should always be prepared for times when they simply cannot talk about it. Look out for support groups you can refer them to, where there are others who have experienced loss in similar circumstances and can truly empathise with their pain.
When a younger person dies the sense of shock is intensified as all the hopes and dreams for that life are snatched away, and explanations usually prove elusive. Those who are grieving naturally want to find answers for their sudden loss, and this search may sometimes lead to apportioning blame and even blaming those close to them. Allow them to express their frustration, and help them to recognise that answers are usually not simple and are often not found. Assure them that while there may be few answers as to ‘Why?’, they can celebrate the time they had with their loved one and the impact that their life had on others.
It will probably be hard for your friend or family member to envisage life moving on without their loved one. They may see nothing positive for the future or feel that the world no longer makes sense. Be patient with them and acknowledge their feelings, but do assure them that their lives still have meaning and that they can have hope for the future. While it is true that life will never be the same, encourage them to resume their daily routines and find meaning in helping those who still need them, such as children and other family members. Encourage them to cherish and celebrate the memories of the one who has gone, but also to build new memories with those who remain.