Ian was driving home from work one evening when he was suddenly killed in an automobile accident. His wife came home to a mysteriously empty house that day- she heard a knock on their front door within minutes of her arrival home. It was the police.
Bertha was cooking dinner when she felt a massive pain in her chest. Her son found her dead on her kitchen floor when he went over to visit her that evening.
DEFINITIONS & KEY THOUGHTS
Death is extremely difficult because it involves the very real and painful loss of a loved one. Responses to death vary greatly and are often different for each and every individual.
The bereaved may ask questions like, “What was I thinking letting her go without me?”; “Why did I get so angry at him before he left the house?”; “What if…?”; and “Why…?”
If death occurs suddenly it can result in a very complicated grieving process. Such suddenness often arises feeling of anger, abandonment, and guilt.
Various theorist have described that several different stages of grieving exist. Upon first hearing of death, there are two stages that are particularly critical: shock and denial. Shock involves having both an emotional and physical response to learning of a sudden death. The bereaved may experience feelings of unreality, shortness of breath, and a racing heartbeat. Denial may follow quickly. The bereaved may begin doing ordinary things like balancing a checkbook or washing dishes in order to re-establish some type of normalcy. Denial is often broken when the bereaved comes face-to-face with the many decisions that follow the death of a loved one.
David K. Switzer has established eight needs that must be fulfilled in order for the effective resolution of the grieving process to occur: (1) to accept the finality and reality of the physical death, (2) to become aware of and express the feelings that one has regarding the loss or toward the deceased person, including the way the deceased died, (3) to break emotional ties with the deceased; i.e., not act as though the deceased person is still physically present, (4) to break patterns of speech or other habitual behaviors that assume the deceased person is still physically present, (5) to affirm that one is worthwhile apart from their interaction and connection with the deceased, (6) to reaffirm and allow the characteristics and behaviors that contribute to one’s growing and ongoing life to come back, (7) to cultivate old and new relationships, and (8) to rediscover the mean of one’s own life.
Some bereaved individuals may become very overwhelmed by the decisions that they are required to make after the death of their loved one. On the other hand, some individuals will have very strong feelings regarding decisions like whether the deceased should be buried or cremated or have an open or closed casket funeral. It is important, above all else, to help the bereaved individuals to come to a consensus on these decisions, rather than arguing with one another. Do so by reminding them of the wishes of the deceased and encourage them to realize that they are not necessarily as important as doing what will make the bereaved individuals most comfortable. If necessary, enlist the help of family friends or volunteers to help prepare for the funeral and help the bereaved to prioritize all that needs to be done. Most importantly, make sure that the bereaved individual understands that all will not be resolved once things return to normal, but that recovery will come with time.
Action steps to help an individual overcome the death of a loved one include:
- Basic needs. Focus on taking care of your own basic needs-food, shelter, and safety- above all else. If basic needs are not met, emotional issues will be even more difficult to deal with.
- Ways of coping. Every individual processes crisis emotions in their own way. If you are a person who does so more easily by being busy, find something simple to do. If you prefer to process emotions alone, look for a quiet, peaceful place.
- Social interaction. Instead of withdrawing, seek support in your friendships.
- Help children. If children are among the bereaved, work on figuring out ways to help them cope. Make them feel secure by ensuring them that everything will be okay. If their parents are in distress, find a familiar and calm individual to care for them temporarily. Answer their questions and help them to process any normal feelings of guilt, anger, or abandonment that they may be experiencing.
- Allow time. Understand that pain takes time to subside. Truly and healthily allow yourself to grieve. Keep in mind the normal stages of grieving that everybody goes through.