I once met a widow who lost one husband suddenly and another after a long illness. She readily admitted that both experiences were excruciatingly painful, yet also had some distinct differences. Others agree. When death is anticipated, we generally enter the grief process earlier and have time to reach out and try to repair any breaks in the relationship. We also may have a chance to say good-bye…. When death is sudden and traumatic, however, we have no time to prepare, so our shock and other reactions tend to be more intense.
Early in the journey, we may go back and forth from disbelief—this is a terrifying nightmare—to being hit hard with the reality of the death. Our grief may include flashbacks of what we saw, if we were at the scene of the death, or of what we imagine happened, if we were not.
As the reality of our loss settles in, our emotional responses may intensify. If our loved one died by suicide, we might feel angry and even enraged that they ended their life. In our sorrow, we may have a deep longing for more time with them, as well as sadness for the despair that tormented them. Our stomach and neck may be tight with anxiety, as we wonder who else in our world is feeling hopeless and considering suicide. We also are apt to try ourselves in the courtroom of our mind. If so, we owe it to ourselves to make it a fair trial. Rather than just accusing ourselves with our regrets and perceived failures, we also need to cite the evidence of how we expressed love for the one who died. We ought to avoid judging ourselves and others harshly, realizing that, for reasons unknown to anyone else, at the moment the person ended their life they saw no other way out of their pain. It is not our fault.[i]
Yet, as is true for all grief journeys, after a traumatic death, it is vital to find healthy ways to express any of these and other normal responses. Talking to family members, friends, a pastor, a counselor, or in a grief support group can help us work through our pain and find healing. We may need to retell, over and over again, the story of how we first heard about the death. While a death might happen suddenly, our healing takes extended time, conscious effort, and patience with ourselves and others.
[i] For more information about suicide loss, see John Jordan and John McIntosh’s Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors (New York City: Routledge Imprint, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011).