Dealing with Sudden, Accidental or Traumatic Death
A sudden, accidental, unexpected or traumatic death shatters the world as we know it. It is often a loss that does not make sense. The sudden death leaves us feeling shaken, unsure and vulnerable. Fatal car crashes occur without warning and usually include visible, physical trauma to the deceased victim.
Initially, when family members and survivors are informed that their loved one has died in a tragic crash, survivors will feel immense shock and disbelief. They may question the accuracy of the information they are being told or feel as though the events occuring around them are not real. Adrenaline will spike. They may be unable to stand. They may scream and react violently to the persons giving the notification.
The grief process is often very different from an expected or anticipated death and exceptionally tragic events like a fatal car crash can cause reactions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on the part of survivors and family members.
The grief response following sudden loss is often intensified since there is little to no opportunity to prepare for the loss, say good-bye, finish unfinished business or prepare for bereavement. Families and friends are suddenly forced to face the loss of a loved one instantaneously and without warning. This type of loss can generate intense grief responses such as shock, anger, guilt, sudden depression, despair and hopelessness.
A sudden tragic event shatters our sense of order and thrusts us into a world forever changed. Survivors of sudden loss may experience a greater sense of vulnerability and heightened anxiety. The safe world we once knew, no longer exists. We fear for ourselves, our family and friends. Survivors can become overwhelmingly preoccupied with thoughts that such a tragedy might happen again.
Along with the primary loss of the person, families and loved ones may experience concurrent crises and multiple secondary losses: lost income, loss of home, loss of social status. The role the loved one held in the family is gone. It takes time for the family to reorganize. Family may be left feeling in a state of perpetual disarray with a lingering sense of unease and disorganization. Marital and other family relationships can become strained.
When the victim is your child, the grief process is excruciating. Parents are often flooded with a variety of painful thoughts and feelings. The death of a child defies the natural order of life and the love a parent feels for the child is usually the strongest attachment a person will ever have. In addition to the realization that your child is gone, feelings of guilt from not being able to protect your child are often overwhelming and leaves the surviving parents inconsulable.
Additional problems arise if the grieving survivor was involved with the disaster or was physically injured. Memories of the accident or the disaster may dominate the person's mind. They may be taken up with feelings of numbness, unreality and fear. The bereaved person may suffer from "survivor guilt," wondering why they survived when others have died and believing that they could have or should have done more to prevent the tragedy.
In public or particularly newsworthy events, survivors may also have to deal with intrusion by the media. As we well know the media can become an additional pain source—not respecting the families privacy, replaying tragic events.
Survivors not only have to deal with the shock and grief of the loss of their loved one, but following the crash families and survivors must deal with the police, investigators, insurance companies and sometimes lawyers.
Following a fatal crash, autopsies are performed. Reviewing the autopsy can be overwhelming to parents learning of the injuries that the child endured.
The search for meaning of the loss can challenge a survivors religious and spiritual beliefs. Sudden losses in particular can precipitate an existential crisis as the survivor searches for meaning. They start questioning their internal belief system and values. Goals, plans and purchases which were important the week prior to the event, abruptly seem trivial in comparison. Survivors are forced to look at and re-evaluate life priorities.
Sudden Death leading to the Unanswerable "Why?" Trying to make sense of or understand sudden losses can be difficult. Survivors are left asking "Why?" "Why did this happen?" In addition to "Why?", survivors are often consumed with "What If's" and "If Only's".
Basics on Coping for the Survivor It is important for the grieving person to take care of him/herself following a sudden loss. He/she is dealing with an event that is beyond his/her control. One way of helping is to do things that help re-establish the person’s sense of control over their world. It is also important to focus on the basics the body needs for day-to-day survival:
Get enough sleep, at least plenty of rest.
Allow others to help with caring for other children, preparing meals, tending to visitors, running errands, etc.
Maintain a normal routine. Even if it is difficult to do regular activities, try to anyway. Putting more structure into a daily routine will help one to feel more in control.
It may be helpful to keep lists, write notes, or keep a schedule. Memory loss is common following a sudden, tragic death.
Try and get some regular exercise. This can help relieve stress and tension.
Keep a balanced diet. Watch out for junk food, or high calorie comfort food binges.
Drink plenty of water.
Drink alcohol in moderation. Alcohol should not be used as a way of masking the pain.
Do what comforts, sustains & recharges.
Allow yourself to cry and feel whatever feelings come naturally. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.
Take it one hour at a time, one day at a time.
Be open to explore support groups when you feel that you are ready. Being able to talk to others who have experienced similar losses can be very helpful.
Don't rush it!! Grieving a sudden, traumatic loss, especially if it is a child, has no timeline. You will have good days and bad days for months, possibly even years.
Seek help from your family doctor if the grief becomes so consuming that you are not able to function or feel suicidal.
How to Help the Grieving
Initially, be persistent and offer concrete help. A grieving family may feel so overwhelmed by the loss that they may not know where to start or what someone can do to help. Offer to prepare meals, help with child care, answer the phone, run errands, or help make phone calls or memorial arrangements. If the media is involved, it may be beneficial to run interference for the family.
After a few months, support is most needed. Be prepared to listen. Give the bereaved time to talk about their loss if they want. Ask how you can help. You can offer to take them to or go with them to a support group if it's feels appropriate.
Over time it helps to remember the grieving on the difficult days—anniversaries, holidays, the birthday or the death day of the person who died. People like to know that others still remember their loved one.
Sudden losses, like all losses, are very distinct and are likely to affect survivors in many different ways. There is no "right" way to grieve the sudden loss of a loved one.
Be patient and know that you are not alone on your journey of healing.