Sudden traumatic death due to homicide, suicide and accident is shocking and unreal, and leaves family members devastated in ways that few other events are capable of leaving them. Traumatic grief belies everything we know about grief from natural deaths; nothing in life prepares one for the sudden violent death of a loved one. This is without question a major life-changing event for the surviving family members. Murder, suicide and accidental deaths are events that will forever be the marker by which time is measured for that family.
Violent death takes away so much more than the person who died. In one fell swoop, you lose your hopes and dreams, your power and choices. When the media notes the death, you also lose your anonymity. Homicide shatters your sense of safety until long after the perpetrator is behind bars and many live in fear of the day the perpetrator is released. Sudden violent death robs you of your innocence, rocks your self-esteem and may leave you unable to trust others. Suicide can leave you wondering “why?” and second guessing the things you did or didn’t do and examining the “what ifs.” Accidental deaths, too, may make you examine all the possible situations that might have brought a different outcome. Most violent deaths can alter spiritual values, leaving you to wonder how God could let this happen. Material things may cease to matter other than what is needed for mere survival. Friends (and sometimes family) and support systems quickly vanish. Sudden violent death changes the very essence of who you are.
Some deaths involve friends or family who were present or may have been a contributing factor in the death. For example, a friend’s fooling with a gun that suddenly discharges, killing someone. Or it could mean riding in or driving a car when someone is killed in an accident. It can be difficult for a family to sort out their feelings about these situations, and not all family members will necessarily agree about the culpability of the relative or friend who was involved. Sometimes families have to agree to disagree. It is important to find a means of preventing a permanent division of the family and this often requires some kind of professional intervention.
Extended family and friends are sometimes hard pressed to understand why you can’t “just get on with your life.” Images of the event (whether witnessed or not) play over and over in your mind. You lack the ability to exercise any control over that. You lose the ability to concentrate, often being unable to read and comprehend even simple things. Short-term memory is compromised for months. Sleep is impaired and health problems often plague you in the throes of complicated grief.
Unanswered questions can lead you to the very edge of sanity. Answers aren’t easy to come by, as most require an investigation, and law enforcement now decides what you may or may not know. You become focused on what you don’t or can’t yet know. All the beliefs you held about the criminal justice system come into question. Seeking some kind of justice can easily become the focus of one’s life, especially if there is a perception that the judicial system doesn’t care or isn’t doing its job. Often there is no accurate way for survivors to make that judgment. It is difficult for families to do much “grief work” while the judicial process continues. Once the work of the criminal justice system is complete, most people are able to begin to put their lives back together.
Many adults report that they are unable to maintain their employment, and leave their jobs or are let go. Work places suddenly seem cold and uncaring, as coworkers uncomfortable with the pain and tears of the grief-stricken employee may avoid them or make insensitive comments. The bereaved person needing support and some sense of normalcy may feel isolated. Lacking concentration and short term memory, their performance will suffer. Students face the same problems.
Children are generally unable to concentrate, and their short-term memory can also be severely compromised, making it difficult to study and retain information. Students may manage to get daily work completed only to fail the test that follows. Children can be the forgotten grievers as they are often overlooked or even told they need to be strong for their parents and may even be told they are now the man or woman of the house. Some adults mistakenly believe that children who still play and aren’t crying all the time are over their grief. Children don’t grieve as adults do, though they have the same emotions—they grieve in small segments of time, and then return to their play. Children must also revisit their grief at each developmental stage. So, though the death may have occurred years ago, they may still be doing their grief work. Of course there are exceptions—some people make a change and excel.
Employers and teachers who haven’t experienced a sudden violent death themselves are seldom able to comprehend the difficulty these employees and students face. So the student is failed or faces expulsion, and the worker is written up or let go. What a shame for our society that students and employees are so misunderstood.
Proper support certainly can and does make a difference in people’s lives and their ability to heal. We encourage people to participate in support groups with other people who have had similar experiences as quickly as possible after the death. This support provides them with others who are further along on the journey, as well as those who are just beginning, keeping them grounded in reality. Given the time and support to heal, most people emerge with strength and abilities they never expected to possess. The strong and dedicated person that emerges from the ashes of a sudden violent death richly rewards family members, friends, teachers and employers who can be patient and supportive while waiting for them to heal.