A sudden, unexpected death brings pain too deep for words. The grief you experience is intensified by the fact that you didn’t have time to say good-bye. In addition, depending on the nature of the death, there may be feelings of anger and/or guilt. Whatever your circumstances may be, this is a very difficult time for you.
The grieving process following a sudden death is complicated and intense. It may seem at times like it requires more than you have to give. You may feel as if a part of your own self is being ripped away and that you are no longer complete.
PHYSICAL EXPERIENCES AND EMOTIONS
Varied emotions are part of the normal grieving process. At times you may think you have no feelings at all. Other times, you may feel like exploding with anger. These feelings will likely be quite different from your usual emotional state and can be quite frightening at times. But they are normal. Allow yourself the freedom to express your feelings. Following are some of the emotions you may feel:
Shock and denial: When you first hear the news, you may be so numb that you cannot comprehend all the details of the event. Others may even commend you for taking it so well. Or it may be that you are in such shock that you cannot complete even a simple task. You may have difficulty believing that this has really happened. Each person’s grief is unique. No one knows exactly what you are going through.
Fear: When a loved one dies, it brings us a heightened sense of our own mortality. Before the tragedy, you may have felt like it would never happen to you. Now, you may find yourself harboring new fears about your own safety and the safety of the rest of your family.
Anger: The anger that is associated with a sudden death is often surprising to the person in grief. It is normal to feel angry, but it is very important that you not act on your angry thoughts. If your loved one was murdered or hit by a drunk driver, your anger will be focused on another. If the death was caused by suicide or risky behavior, you may feel angry at the one who died. It seems so unfair that their life was ended prematurely. Whatever the source of your anger, find someone with whom you can talk. Some people find it helpful to engage in physical activity or write in a journal. Find some outlet for your anger.
Guilt: Many times, sudden death brings a load of guilt to those who survived. You may find yourself thinking, "If only I had ________" We often try to blame ourselves in order to make sense out of a tragedy and to prove that we have some control over our lives. Remember that you are human and there are many things you cannot control or undo.
Depression: You may feel like you will never be able to participate in a "normal" life again. Some people have difficulty just getting through the day. Your energy level may be so low that you have no desire to do anything. It is all right to feel this way. Eventually, you will become involved in life again, but you don’t need to rush the process.
THE GRIEF PROCESS
Following are some of the stages that most people experience when grieving:
Shock and Numbness
Temporarily you may be so stunned that you feel as though nothing has happened. It may seem as though time has stopped and a fog or cloud surrounds you. You may find yourself forgetting things, feeling confused, or having a hard time making decisions. These are normal reactions. Within several weeks, the shock will begin to fade.
Searching and Yearning
You may find yourself looking for every possible link to your loved one. Comfort may come in the form of photographs, clothing or other keepsakes. This time can be confusing because of the many competing emotions you may feel: guilt, anger, sadness, restlessness and/or impatience. You may feel physical symptoms such as a choking sensation, shortness of breath and a loss of, or increase in appetite. This stage may last as long as four months and will likely return on the anniversary of your loved one’s death or birthday, and around special holidays.
Disorganization and Despair
During this time the realization of your loss becomes acutely painful. You may begin to experience increased fears and anxieties, such as an overwhelming sense of danger and the dread of being alone. You may find it difficult to concentrate or may have problems starting or continuing routine projects. You may have difficulty sleeping or feel very depressed. You may feel like you are going crazy, but these feelings will decrease with the passage of time. This is the time to contact those around you who are concerned and able to give support. It is also an appropriate time to join a grief support group.
Resolution and Reorganization
Eventually you will notice your level of energy increasing and your ability to make decisions returning. This does not mean that you will never again feel the pain. It does not mean that you are forgetting your loved one, but you have found a special place in your heart for him or her and are ready to move forward with your life. You will find that you are able to relate to others in a deeper, more meaningful way because of what you’ve experienced.
You may not be at all concerned about your own health at this time, but it is important that you begin to take care of yourself, even in the midst of your sadness.
Eating well is one of the hardest things to do after the death of a loved one. You may find yourself eating to find comfort, or the thought of food may be repulsive. Weight gain or loss is very common following the death of a loved one. But consult a health professional if your weight changes by more than 25 pounds.
Sleep may seem like it will never come. The loneliness seems worst at night. It is important to maintain your regular rest schedule, even if you are unable to sleep. If you can’t fall asleep, find a comfortable chair and try reading, but don’t get up to do something active. Reserve those activities for the times when you used to be active.
Exercise is a key component to staying healthy. Although you probably won’t feel like doing anything very strenuous, it can be very helpful to start a regular program of activity. If you can, find someone who will take a daily walk with you.
Avoid alcohol, tranquilizers and caffeinated beverages. It is tempting to numb your pain with these substances, but many people say that this relief is artificial and only prolongs the time they have to face their pain.
Talking will help. You may find people--even relatives and friends--who will discourage you from talking about your loved one who has died. But it is healing to express your feelings. Do it as long as you need to.
Crying is very healthy. Many people try to suppress their tears, but tears are healing.
Writing in a journal seems to be one of the most helpful things that many people do while grieving. Feelings that may be uncomfortable to share in other settings can be safely written down.
Asking for help may seem awkward, but friends and relatives can make things easier. Others want desperately to be of service, but don’t know what to do.
Support groups will put you in an environment where it is okay to grieve, and where you can gain support from many others who have been through similar situations.
Time is a healer. If you don’t run from the pain of your grief, time will provide opportunity to work through it. Healing will come ... in time.
Taking over financial matters may be a new experience for you. But there are a number of items that should be taken care of within the next six months. Following are some items that you should address:
Taxes: If the death in your family was that of a spouse, federal law requires that an estate tax return be filed within nine months of the death in many cases. Since tax laws change each year, it would be wise to consult an expert to assist with this.
Social Security: Depending on the circumstances, you may be eligible for death benefits. Call the Social Security Administration for details and also ask about eligibility for Medicare.
Insurance: You will want to contact your agent for help in processing life insurance claims.
Property: Probate can be a long and complex process, so the advice of a lawyer will be most helpful. In most cases, the court will not allow probate to be closed before one year, so many of your financial resources may be unavailable for some time.
Your home: People may try to convince you to move to another home right away following the death in your family. This may be tempting because there are so many memories triggered by being in your home. This is a decision that should be made carefully over time. Don’t let anyone rush you into a decision that you will regret at a later date. If you need to, find someone to stay with you in your home; or you may want to stay with friends or relatives for awhile. Allow some time to pass before making any major decisions.
Bank and retirement accounts: It would be wise to change names on all accounts as soon as possible. A copy of the death certificate will be required. (see below)
Death Certificate: The death certificate must be certified by the Hall of Records in San Bernardino, CA. Certified copies of the death certificate are needed for changing names on bank accounts, processing life insurance claims, changing the title on your home, and obtaining death benefits from Social Security. The mortuary you choose will assist you in obtaining the certified copies that you will need for legal purposes.
In the days, weeks, and months ahead, there may be questions you want to ask. Feel free to contact the Bereavement program office at (909) 558-7261 or the Chaplains’ office at (909) 558-4367.
As you move through the grief process, you may not understand all the emotions that churn inside of you. Such an experience can be fearful. To help you deal with your loss, the chaplains offer grief recovery groups for adults, teens, and children, four times each year. The seven-week program begins on the first Monday of every January, April, July and October. For information and/or registration, please call (909) 558-4367.
You will receive a letter inviting you to attend a memorial service at Loma Linda University Medical Center. It is entitled, "In Memory..." and is held several times each year for the families of those who have died. We sincerely hope you will be able to attend.
Reading material: Centering Corporation (402)553-1200
- No Time for Good-byes by Janice Harris Lord
- Who Lives Happily Ever After? by Sharon Turnbull