It’s not just that we “didn’t get to say goodbye.” That common phrase, often associated with sudden death, is far too simplistic when unpacking the reality of completely unexpected deaths: accidents, homicides, suicides, sudden natural causes (e.g. heart attack, brain hemorrhage) and serious illnesses where death is unforeseen (e.g. epilepsy).
The scientific community explains that if our bodies did not go into shock as we face our new reality, the tragedy would overwhelm our system to such an extent that we would die. In this way, the shock reaction – numbness, fog, autopilot – protects us. However, it can also greatly lengthen the start of our healing journey and ability to see circumstances clearly. Some people find they cannot cry, while others cry almost constantly. Most talk about absolute disbelief that the death happened and, when alone, a desire to stop living.
I once heard, “It was a thoughtful design to make our hearts beat and lungs breathe automatically.” I’m sure I wouldn’t be here if there was choice involved after my 29-year-old husband died. Dealing with his death tested me to my core and made me feel like a collection of broken pieces to just throw away. I paddled through the sea of paperwork and felt completely empty inside. I tried going back to my job and lasted two months before I completely broke down and resigned. I didn’t want to find a new normal.
Since sudden deaths most often occur in children and young to midlife adults, family members left behind experience massively changed daily lives. A woman may find herself the sole provider and parent after her husband dies. Children may move to a new city, school, and/or home after their parents are killed. A couple’s plans and dreams may shatter when they become childless. For all, feelings of self-confidence and security are seriously threatened.
To survive the aftermath of sudden death, you have to rebuild your life. And that is so much easier said than done. Part of the problem is no discussion with the deceased about how to deal with their death or how to move forward; the survivor has to figure out their wishes, finances, family, and oh yes — the grieving process. This is compounded by the reality that sometimes, last conversations are not pleasant, or survivors are left with memories that discourage them.
Volunteering in a school helped me start rebuilding my life as the kids helped me realize that, if I had to still be here without my husband, life could feel purposeful as a teacher. It was an emotional struggle to complete the classes and earn my license, but I’ve unexpectedly helped many students through their grief, and that has meant the world to me. It took me longer to rebuild my personal life, as I remembered my husband saying “I could never be with anyone else if something happened to you.” I didn’t want to be betray his sentiment. For years, I convinced myself that no one could possibly take his place and it wasn’t loyal for me to want it.
PERSISTENT COMPLEX BEREAVEMENT
Once known as “complicated grief,” this term used by the mental health community reveals an understanding that some people suffer a chronic debilitating condition. Many people experience an intense, but normal, non-linear process from anger and deep sadness to eventual acceptance, but some find permanency in acute grief. In particular, people who “ruminate over various concerns related to the death, cannot make sense of the loss, catastrophically misinterpret aspects of the loss including their own reactions, and avoid reminders of the loss” fall into this category. Risk factors focus on the deceased’s age, extent of prior decline and expectancy of death, and the comfort and tranquility of final days and moments. Avoidance becomes a paramount coping mechanism to divert harrowing thoughts or reactions related to the deceased.
While I told many people that my address book completely changed after James death (meaning that people I thought would be there for me seemed to vanish), it is also true that I pushed people away. I didn’t go to friends’ weddings, I didn’t reply to messages, and I was in constant worry that the two friends I did see regularly were going to die on their way to or from visiting me. I was overwhelmed with guilt asking them to drive to me, as well as my perceived blame for my husband’s death. I taught him how to ride a motorcycle, and if I hadn’t, he would’ve had airbags and steel protecting his body when he was rear-ended that day. Every platitude and logical explanation why the crash wasn’t my fault made me implode with rage. This lasted for three solid years before it transitioned to a fading roller coaster.
POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER
PTSD, for the majority of the uninformed public, is a condition that soldiers who’ve returned from war develop. However, it affects a plethora of people dealing with grief and anxiety. While the trademark of persistent complex bereavement is sorrow and yearning, the trademark of PTSD is fear. Both conditions commonly endure disturbing thoughts and avoidance (of more possible danger), but people with PTSD re-experience the traumatic event through flashbacks and emotions, rather than a preoccupation with the person.
One of the most difficult parts of living with PTSD after a sudden loss is that triggers can exist almost everywhere. In the case of fatal car crashes, few survivors have the choice to avoid seeing cars, witnessing negligent drivers, hearing people talk about collisions (with glee), or even watching the nightly news without dealing – on some level – with that deadly moment.
I was diagnosed with PTSD two years after my husband died. My therapist often described it as a paper jam, where I became stuck. I’d feel so locked up in my brain and my body, literally shaking and disbelieving I could actually make the bloody images – of my husband’s body pulled underneath a car – stop again. Two things helped me the most: a weighted blanket and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Weighted blankets contain the chaos in the body and create a feeling of security. EMDR uses vibrating nodes in the hands or an image for the eyes that make new neural pathways possible for ingrained memories.
A final thought:
“There’s no point to comparing – loss is loss.” Have you heard this sentiment, too? I’ve heard it many, many times in the nine years since I became a widow. But here’s the truth: It’s human to compare and to categorize. What I’ve learned is that every major loss has elements that are worse, and elements that are better. I know a widower who watched his wife degrade before his eyes through three bouts with cancer and then literally die from choking on her own blood. This widower and I have similar and different types of memories/experiences AND we need different kinds of help. This is perhaps the most important conclusion and reason to learn about the realities of grief.
 Shear, M. Katherine et al. “COMPLICATED GRIEF AND RELATED BEREAVEMENT ISSUES FOR DSM-5.” Depression and anxiety 28.2 (2011): 103–117. PMC. Web. 2 Mar. 2017.
Your wisdom uncovered through grief is comforting. Keep writing and sharing, Michelle.
This is a great article on sudden death. I can relate to the “fog” and fear that has followed me during the three year loss of my 16 year old son. He died in his sleep. He had not shown any signs of illness prior to his death. The ME said it was death due to his asthma but this was very strange since he had not been having problems in the last 4 months. This loss has greatly affected us and many others that knew him.
I like this article, but I believe the author left out one of the biggest symptoms of Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder is that the individual cannot adjust to their lives after a loss of a loved (only measured after 6 months have passed) and are unable to function in their daily lives as they once have before. Function in their daily lives includes work, school, social engagements, and daily care. Those affected may experience some or all of these symptoms. Without treatment, (there is no none successful treatment found yet, but research suggest Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help) the individual may experience isolation, self-medication, Major Depressive Disorder, Anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and suicidal ideation among other major issues. There needs to be more research on how to diagnose and treat these individuals.