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Coping with Unexpected Death

It's safe to say that most of us react strongly when something happens which is unexpected. It doesn't have to be something bad, either; our natural response to a beneficial (unexpected event)–let's say winning the lottery–can be equally intense.

Unfortunately, despite our best efforts to control our surroundings and to envision a safe, serene future; we are at (to a greater degree than we'd care to admit) affected by random chance. As French novelist Marcel Proust said “Instead of what our imagination makes us suppose and which we worthlessly try to discover, life gives us something that we could hardly imagine.” And here we're focused on the truly unwelcome and wholly unimaginable sudden unexpected death of a cherished family member, friend (or beloved animal companion).

Coping with Unexpected Death

Sudden unexpected death produces shock and disbelief in those left behind; both are uniquely heavy burdens in that they effectively prevent us from moving forward into active bereavement. This early phase of grieving unexpected death is characterized by a sense of numbness, where we feel completely disconnected from our feelings. There's no way to begin to adjust to the loss because we've yet to even acknowledge our loved one is no longer living.

There's also the distress of believing certain "unfinished business" (or missed opportunities) now exist; things left unsaid or undone. And of course, let's not neglect to mention the regret, blame and guilt, along with strong feelings of helplessness; which can plague surviving family members and friends.

Researchers have also noted "the sudden loss of a loved one can trigger a variety of psychiatric disorders in people with no history of mental illness." They found "in people aged 30 years or older" (after taking into account variables such as prior psychiatric diagnoses, other traumatic experiences, and certain demographic variables like sex, race, income, education, and marital status) "the unexpected death of a loved one roughly doubled the risk for new-onset mania", and  for people between 50 and 70 years-of-age, "the risk increase was more than fivefold." (Mania is a condition marked by periods of great emotional excitement and over-activity.)

They argue "losing a loved one suddenly also raised the risk of major depression, excessive use of alcohol, and anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and phobias. The largest risk increases were for post-traumatic stress disorder, which was seen across age groups with an increased risk as high as 30-fold."

What You Can Do

Grieving sudden unexpected death certainly has its own set of uniquely intense challenges, but there are things you can do to effectively grieve this devastating loss:

Be proactive: It's smart to anticipate experiencing a very wide range of common reactions, including physical pain, anger, confusion and profound sadness. First, claim your right to these very individual experiences. Beyond acknowledging them when they occur; you'll also want to honor the fundamental energy within your reactions to the sudden unexpected death of your loved one: love. Acknowledging each of your reactions arises from love–one of the most powerful and complex of human emotions–gives meaning to all you experience in your bereavement.

Expect additional losses: The loss of your loved one (whether sudden or anticipated) can trigger a cascade of accompanying losses. Not only are you deprived of their companionship; there may also be the loss of financial security, a decline in physical health and a sudden shift in social identity. Some of these losses may not be readily apparent for a long time.

Anticipate philosophical challenges: The sudden unexpected death of a loved one, especially when it involves trauma or violence, can undermine the very foundation of your life. It challenges your fundamental beliefs about how the world works and causes you to question or redefine your spirituality. It will take time to fit this loss into your belief system, and chances are good this loss will force you to refashion your world view considerably.

Do the work of mourning: Active, mindful grieving can be very hard work, and it's required of you when you're least able to handle the smallest of tasks. So it's no wonder you shy away from the work of bereavement; yet you really can't afford to turn your back on your recovery. At the very least keep a journal. Recording your experiences each day will help you to recognize (and if necessary, refocus) your reactions, and measure your progress over time.

Stay as healthy as possible: Adequate self-care is essential. Get enough rest, drink plenty of water, eat nourishing foods, and exercise regularly. You can't afford to become lethargic; so stay as active as possible. If you have lingering physical symptoms or pain, make an appointment with your physician for a thorough examination.

Fight the fear: The loss of any loved one can flood your heart and mind with fear. When a sudden, unexpected death occurs, there's the basic, primal fear behind the thought "It could happen to me too"; and then there are other recurring fears common to the basic grief experience. Like the fear of losing your mind; or the fear that you'll never be able to survive this loss. There can also be the fear of forgetting; the concern that your memories, as precious as they are, will disappear over time. But there's nothing to worry about there; your love strengthens those memories–they will endure.

How We Can Help

Coping with the death of someone dear to us is rarely, if ever, easy. This is especially true when you are mourning their sudden, unexpected death. If you've found it overwhelmingly difficult to cope with unexpected death, please don't isolate yourself. Instead, call us at (519) 941-1392; we'll listen closely to your needs, and put you in touch with local experts who are qualified to help in your unique situation.

Online Sources:

Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, "Unexpected Death of a Loved One Linked to Onset of Psychiatric Disorders", ScienceDaily, 29 May 2014