The Trauma of Sudden Death
I learned that I was experiencing the consequences of sudden death. I was previously familiar with the term sudden cardiac death, which typically refers to an arrhythmia. Sudden death refers to anyone who dies unexpectedly, most often from an accident, homicide, suicide, disaster or an acute medical condition.2 The concept exists hand in hand with sudden bereavement, which is the mourning a survivor experiences when he or she has not had time to prepare.
Explore this issueFebruary 2019
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Physicians can often see death’s approach long before the sickle is sharpened. Patients’ families also learn the gradually accelerating rate of hospitalizations likely signals an impending demise. There is time to start the grieving process even before the loss is experienced.
The Kübler-Ross stages of grieving have been criticized for being inaccurate or incomplete. Contrarily, I am always struck by how much they seem to capture.
In the case of sudden death, such preparation is not possible. Thus, the survivor is forced to experience a symphony of emotions at a single moment in time.
Therese Rando, a clinical psychologist at the Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss in Warwick, R.I., describes it as follows: “They’re not just dealing with loss. They’re also dealing with personal traumatization. … It affects the ability to get on with grief and mourning, to bend your mind around what has transpired. There is no warning, no time to prepare and gradually take on the notion. … A person is not just heartbroken when they lose someone suddenly. They’re heartbroken, and they’re traumatized, and they’re put in a situation where the conflicting needs of dealing with the heartbreak and trauma simultaneously can impede their forward process for a while.”3
Describing this loss as a trauma is a common theme. The most common reaction to the trauma is shock, which causes the victim to feel numb or disconnected to their feelings. Another phase not described by Kübler-Ross is guilt: guilt over surviving, over words not said, over one’s own reaction to loss.4
Coping with Sudden Death
How someone deals with this trauma while still showing up to work is highly dependent on the individual; everyone grieves in their own way, and for some, going back to work may be part of that process. Some recommendations include the following:5
- Don’t isolate: Although a natural impulse in many cultures is to mourn in isolation, it is better to be with friends and family, who could provide emotional support as you heal;
- Express your feelings: Tears are a normal and natural part of grieving; suppressing these emotions may lead to other behaviors, like overeating or angry outbursts;
- Take advantage of available resources: Many universities and hospitals have counseling programs for employees dealing with trauma. A counselor may help you determine how to reintegrate into your workplace as you grieve;
- Keep in mind that you may not be at your best: Grief may interfere with your ability to concentrate at work, and it may help to temporarily reduce your work schedule; and
- Be good to yourself: It is important to remember to take care of yourself, which may include exercising and meditation.
If you are part of someone’s support system, these are some things you could consider: