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Death Shock: How to Recover When a Loved One Dies Suddenly

5 stages of grief and 5 ways to recover.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

It changes you forever. The news arrives, and time stops.

There are few things in life as devastating as the sudden death of a loved one. As your world descends into chaos and you're flooded with despair, you feel like you're trapped in a nightmare and can't wake up:

"How could this happen? It can't be true!"

A sudden death shatters our sense of security

We prefer to believe that our loved ones are safe from harm. We assume that accidents and illnesses will bypass them. So when tragedy strikes suddenly, we go into shock. Our entire being vibrates with a single word: Why?

A sudden death shakes you to the core. You can't turn away from it; you can't reason with it. You know that life will never be the same. (see "How to Recover When Life Crushes You")

Processing death: The five stages of grief

Kubler Ross' identified five stages of grief to provide a framework for the processing of death. Ross spent much of her life working with terminally ill patients. While these stages are not universal, nor do they occur in lockstep, they can be useful in thinking about grief.

1. Denial: You experience shock and disbelief, frequently accompanied by numbness, detachment, or disassociation. You may focus on facts or keep busy, anything to delay experiencing the pain and despair the loss of your loved one has caused you.

2. Anger: Rage emerges in you. You may point your anger at doctors, friends, spouses, siblings, society or even yourself. But when anger is fixated on blame it offers little comfort. As blame subsides, the pain returns. Anger also triggers a crisis of faith, rage at a God that would permit such a horrible thing to happen. You may even feel angry at the deceased for abandoning you.

3. Bargaining: In an attempt to ease the pain of your loss, you try to bargain with it. You may make sudden changes or promises, such as, "I'm going to be a better person." or "I'll honor his or her memory by changing my ways." But such grief-driven promises are hard to keep. Bargaining helps to soften your anger and is your first attempt to come to grips with the loss.

4. Depression: After passing through denial, anger, and bargaining, the painful reality of the situation sinks in. Depression pushes down on you until you collapse under its weight. Everything feels pointless. Exhaustion plagues you. You may fall back on self-destructive habits such as over-eating, sleeping, or isolating. Such patterns existed in your life before the loss and frequently increase during the depression stage.

5. Acceptance.

You begin to accept your new reality. You recognize that, although everything has changed, you must go on living. You start to find moments of inner peace. Perhaps you take comfort in memories, rather than feel depressed or hurt by them. You may dream about your loved one or talk to him or her in your mind. You start to seek new relationships.

The road to recovery from loss

The stages of grief can last months or years. Everyone passes through them differently. To help yourself recover, consider the following suggestions:

1. Seek support: A community of friends and family can be a great comfort after a loss. Accept whatever relief that they can offer and don't be afraid to ask for more.

2. Reach 0ut: Isolation after a loss is common, but too much of it breeds depression. Reach out to others, enroll in a bereavement group, or find a religious community or meditative practice that offers you peace.

3. Maintain self-care: Keep active, explore new habits such as exercise, journaling, or yoga. Find a way to step outside your grief by being more creative, such as taking a class, going to inspiring concerts, or visiting galleries.

4. Find Meaning: There is a beautiful new book written by David Kessler, "Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief," In it, he discusses how the loss of his 21-year-old son due to an overdose gave way to depths of grief that he's never known. Books like this can be a great comfort in helping you to realize that you're not alone. They also offer you some tools to help you recover.

5. Start Fresh: At some point, you'll have a choice to make: Do you let grief shrink your life and hold you hostage or do you try to move forward? I had a friend whose son was killed instantly when a car hit him while he was skateboarding. It was so shocking that even now when I think about it, twenty years later, sadness washes over me. My friend emerged from his grief process a changed person. He published a beautiful letter in a local newspaper to his son, celebrating and thanking him for their time together. In the letter, he shared that his son was an organ donor and wrote "His eyes returned sight to someone who couldn't see. His lungs breathe now in another body." It was a beautiful tribute.

When I asked him how he found the strength to go on, he said, "I decided the best way to honor my son, was to live a happy life. I'm sure that's what he would want."

No one fully recovers from the sudden death of a loved one. We all are changed by such losses. But don't give up the battle to go on. A grief that is honored and processed fully frequently gives birth to a greater appreciation and commitment to living.

More from Sean Grover L.C.S.W.
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