Death is considered “natural” if it was somewhat expected, from natural causes, prepared for. This leaves family members sad for a while, but able to move through the grief process with a positive outcome.
Sudden or violent death changes the rules, and requires special handling.
Sudden death - heart attack, accident, natural disasters or SIDS, for example - has its own unique properties, and will not be covered in this column.
Violent death is the result of homicide, suicide, or terrorism. What you might be feeling:
Shame that you weren’t there, and your loved one died alone
Guilt that you didn’t see this coming and prevent it.
A need to blame someone and make them pay
A need to keep repeating to yourself the story of the death
Hyper vigilance over the rest of the family
You need to know that you keep recalling the death scene because you’re trying to understand it. It is not “your story”, because you weren’t there. Most likely, you could not have changed the outcome. Had you been there, you may also have been hurt. Right now that seems okay to you. You would give anything to have died in your loved one’s place. Know that violent death has no logic, no sense behind it. That doesn’t stop you from looking for it! But it’s just not there.
So you have only sketchy details from law enforcement and witnesses. You remember movie scenes of similar events. From this you have created what you think took place. You have created a fantasy death scene. This is normal – for a while. We’ll go further into that in a bit.
Preventing it? Not likely. Murders don’t happen only in dangerous places. Terrorism strikes anywhere. Thinking you could have done this or that is part of the fantasy you have created.
People who have made the decision for suicide are going to accomplish it. It’s a strange mind set. They see no other way out. They really do think family and friends will be better off without them, with no consideration at all for the pain and suffering that will follow. Again, we look for logic in a place where none exists.
An old saying says Revenge is Sweet. Families of murder victims will hold off grieving for YEARS while the justice system wheels grind. It is expected that a conviction will offer this huge sense of relief. It doesn’t, at all. And now, years after the fact, your grief hasn’t even begun to be processed. You still feel like it happened yesterday. You are at square one. So after the trial, if you’re wondering why you’re still so angry all the time, that is your answer. Time to take care of you. Grief is never easy to work through. After a prolonged delay, it’s even worse. Get some help.
Against whom do you seek revenge after a suicide? It is human nature to blame, so we pick someone. Anyone. Always the wrong one. Because the only one to “blame” is our dead loved one, and we don’t want blame there. Everyone who knew the person is beating themselves up over it. So it can go one of two ways – now fragile relationships can be completely destroyed, or all can bond together and make recovery a group supported effort. And man, it takes chutzpah to choose the latter. Blessings.
RECOVERY. So how does one get there after losing someone to violence? Let’s be clear on what recovery means. You do not forget the event. You still have times of sadness. You will always wish it hadn’t happened. But you’ll be able to sleep better. Your health will improve because you’ll be doing better self care. Your quality of life will improve. You may even find the strength and compassion to reach out. You’ll feel again, after your emotions have been flat lined so long.
TIME FRAME. You’ll pretty much be a mess for about 6 months after the event. After that, each person has their own time table. Figure on several years if you work at it and have help. Mind you, other factors will affect the process. Other deaths, relationship issues, financial change, job change, moving, health issues – be sure you’re working on the big picture.
HELP. Studies show that most people affected by violent death seek a clergy person first, rather than a psychologist. Make sure that clergy has some training in grief work. Some won’t touch it. You may still see a psych later, who can coordinate with the clergy for a good program for you.
Studies also show that the people better able to hold it together and begin recovery have a “Confiding Relationship”. Someone they know they can talk to, when needed, who will listen, not judge, not advise unless asked, and who will tell them when they’ve crossed a line into obsessing. This Confidante will let you vent for a while, then slowly bring you back to reality, help you focus on what’s needed, like your job, or lunch.
TASKS. Yep, there is homework, and lots of it. This is not one of those situations that can be solved with drugs or viewing Dr. Phill. Remember the hardest thing you’ve ever done until now? Get ready for round two.
Focus on the deceased’s life. Gather photos, memorabilia, music, artwork, letters, anything that reminds you of the good and okay times. Share the story behind each object with someone. Or many someones. This is very important.
Recognize your source of strength. What makes you get up in the morning? What prompts you to get through the day? What do you do to keep from thinking so much? And guess what? The fact that you DO get up and keep moving means you are resilient. You are stronger than you think. Hear you roar. Celebrate that, and DO NOT diminish it.
Who took care of you in the past? Who takes care of you now, in even the slightest way? If you’re the main caregiver for everyone else, this is going to be hard for you. But it’ll help a lot to let someone give to you once in a while.
List things you do that help relax you. Keep doing them.
Rely on your faith and belief system. What do you believe about life after death? What is God to you? Review that and lean on it. If you’re not sure, this is a good discussion point with a clergy person. You need not be a member of a faith community to seek help and guidance, by the way.
Finally, and only when you are ready, draw the death scene. We’re talking stick figures with crayons, not DaVinci. Explain your picture to someone. Then talk about what you would have done had you been there. One woman said she would have taken the weapon and killed the assailant. Then she would have cleaned her daughter’s wounds, and held her as she died. She would have told her how much she loved her, would miss her. She said goodbye. This was quite a turning point for the woman. It can be for you, too. But it can’t be stressed enough that this task does not exist in a vacuum. You absolutely need to do this with clergy or a counselor.
HOW TO KNOW IF YOU’RE IN TROUBLE ? If more than six months has passed and you don’t feel you’re coming around. It’s time for psychiatric or psychological help if The fantasy re-enactment of the death goes on
You still don’t feel emotions, laugh much, enjoy things you used to
Health problems have surfaced
You exhibit symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Also check out the Violent Death Bereavement Society (vdbs.org), Compassionate Friends, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, and HospiceCare of Colorado.
There is hope. Reach out for