Lesson Six


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If you are new to this website, I suggest that you begin with the first lesson and follow through consecutively. As in any course of study, each lesson builds upon the previous. You may begin here. You will receive notification when a new lesson is posted.

In Lesson Five, we began to study the Grief Reactions Factors. As a reminder, these include:

  1. Emotional Bonding
  2. Manner of Death or Loss
  3. Obstacles to Healing Grief
  4. Previous Loss Experience

We have covered emotional bonding, how we are “connected” to the person or the event and why this connection is one of the key components to how and why we grieve. We learned that the more intertwined we are with the person or the event, the deeper and more profound is our grief.

Today, we will discuss the manner of death. Was it a sudden death? Or did our loved one have an illness that lingered for several weeks, months, or even years? We will also learn that a sudden, traumatic event can cause similar feelings and emotions as the death of a loved one.

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Sudden Death versus Anticipated Death
by Peggy Sweeney

No matter how our loved one died, we grieve. However, the manner in which the death happens will influence our grieving process.

Examples of sudden death include:

  • heart attack
  • stroke
  • motor vehicle accident
  • suicide
  • sudden infant death syndrome
  • line of duty death of firefighter or police officer

Shock and disbelieve are often our first reactions. When I received a phone call from a family friend that my dad had a heart attack and was dead, I immediately hung up the phone and dialed my parents’ home because I knew the person who had called must have been mistaken. Sadly, they were not.

Examples of anticipated death include:

  • cancer
  • brain injury
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • heart disease

When death occurs as the result of a long-term illness or injury, the levels of shock and disbelief may be less intense than they are with a sudden death because we have known for some time of the imminent death. Nevertheless, when someone we love is slowly dying, we may find ourselves surprised when his or her death occurs. This is not an abnormal response, but rather a belief that as long as there is life there is hope.

On the other hand, some people find it very difficult to watch a family member or close friend become debilitated and suffer a slow, painful death. They may silently pray for a peaceful death; an end to the torment. During the many months that my mother struggled to live, I found myself on what seemed like an endless roller coaster ride. Up one minute when a surgery or medication appeared to correct a problem or ease her pain, then tossed down into the depths of despair when efforts to make her well and pain-free failed. Watching someone you love very much die is never easy. Although mom’s death was very painful to cope with, it was a blessing for her.

What impact do these two types of death (sudden or anticipated) have on us as we begin to heal our grief? Disbelief, shock, denial, and a numbing of our senses may often accompany a sudden death. Some people may be angry, consumed with guilt, or lash out at those around them. Sudden death does not allow us to say a final goodbye or tell the person how much we loved them. We think it is too late to ask for forgiveness or to make amends for hurtful things we may have said or done in the past.

Following a very traumatic death (the death of a child, suicide, homicide, etc.), our brain and our body acknowledge the fact that we are facing something that is overwhelming to cope with. Many people will experience a sense of being on automatic pilot. They will do simple tasks seemingly without any thought

As a mortician, I witnessed this many times. A family member would come to the funeral home to make arrangements. Without any outward sign of emotion—almost robotically—they would answer my questions and offer detailed information concerning their wishes for the funeral and burial. You might think that this indifferent behavior is a sign that this person is coping well, or is emotionally unscathed by their loved one’s death. This is not true at all. It is merely nature’s coping mechanism. Eventually, the pain of grief descends unannounced and unmercifully.

Although we will grieve and have many of the same feelings and emotions as someone who is coping with the sudden death of a family member or special friend, anticipating their death – even unconsciously – gives us the opportunity to complete some of our grief work before our loved one dies.

Unless your loved one is in denial of their imminent death, you both have the opportunity to share your innermost feelings and emotions, right wrongs from the past, and make amends. Many people who are dying not only want to do this, but find it beneficial as they near life’s end. Furthermore, they may have had to relinquish control over many things in their life due to their particular long-term illness or injury: an active lifestyle, driving, cooking their favorite meals, or entertaining guests in their home. Allowing them to take part in an active healing experience such as this will bring both of you comfort and a sense of peace.

Some people may want or need to be sure that their affairs are in order. Planning their funeral arrangements or getting legal issues resolved for surviving family members are of great concern to them. Do not hesitate to assist them should they ask for help. The rewards you will gain in the long run will be well worth your efforts now.

We will grieve in spite of the manner in which our loved ones die. Death is death. Grief is grief. Pain is pain. We cannot go back in time and undo events that have happened or take back words that were said in anger or haste. We must accept our humanness. We must learn to forgive and ask for forgiveness. We must love unconditionally. You never know when death will touch your life.

Copyright Peggy Sweeney. All rights reserved.

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Consider reading from our Archives
Sudden Death
1…2…3…4…5…6… (military widow)
The Road Less Traveled by Peggy Sweeney
Griefland: Armen’s Story by Armen Bacon

Anticipated Death
Going the Distance by Benjamin Allen
“Because You Were There” by Sally Dalzel
The Voice on the Answering Machine by Linda Campanella

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Have you visited our Good Grief Library? A wealth of topics and titles to help you cope. Divided and sub-divided into specific categories for ease in searching for just the right book. Can’t find what you are looking for? Do you have a title or two that you would like to share with us? Send your questions and referrals to me, peggy@sweeneyalliance.org.

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No Homework Homework ~ Time to Write in Your Journal
As I have mentioned before, I strongly encourage people who are grieving to keep a journal. It offers you the chance to look back and note the progress you have made over the weeks and months since your loved one died.

If you are like me though, I hate handwriting of any kind because I have arthritis and it hurts to use a pen. I refer typing on my iPad or laptop. I sometimes use the “dictation tool” on my laptop. If you haven’t done so already, give journaling a try.

Based on this lesson, answer these questions in your private journal:

1. How did your loved one die? Was it sudden or anticipated? Describe the circumstances surrounding their death.

2. If the death was sudden, what were your reactions to learning of the death? Who told you they had died? What were your first emotions and feelings – disbelief, anger, numbness? Besides coping with your grief, what other issues did you have to deal with; such as, legal and financial issues?

3. If the death occurred after a prolonged illness, what role did you play in taking care of them? Were you their sole caregiver? What, if anything, did you do to help them, and yourself, accept the finality of their death? Did you help them plan their funeral or memorial service? Did they ask you to assist them in getting their finances, will and other important documents in order?

4. What other responsibilities did you have to assume that you weren’t prepared to do? For example, did you have to assume care of an aging parent whose spouse has died? Or, did you become the sole provider for your children after their father or mother died?

There are many other scenarios that occur when some dies. Yours is unique for you.

Our next lesson will focus on obstacles to healing grief

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