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Without Warning: Understanding the Agony of Sudden Catastrophic Death (part 1)Without Warning: Understanding the Agony of Sudden Catastrophic Death (part 1)
by Delores A. Kuenning

NOTE: In light of the events of September 11, as well as the heightened sense of loss and recurrence of grief during the holiday period, we wanted to introduce you to a resource to help in understanding the impact of sudden loss of a loved one to death and then some suggestions of things to do as a care-giver in these circumstances.

The Impact of Sudden Death

    Circumstances surrounding the unexpected death of a loved one often add to the traumatic impact upon the bereaved and those left in death’s wake.

    Danny goes off to school on his bicycle and is struck by a car and killed. Normally, his mother drives him to school. “If only I had not let him ride his bicycle!” cries the mother.

    One morning, Betty and Carl have a quarrel because the checking account is overdrawn. He leaves for work angry. She is defensive and calls after him, “If you made more money ...” Suddenly at work, Carl has a heart attack and dies. “If only I could tell him I’m sorry,” says Betty.

    Mother and teacher-astronaut, Christa McAulifffe, along with six other astronauts, is killed as the nation watches the Challenger explode a minute after take-off on Jan. 28, 1986. Her daughter’s plea, “Don’t go, Mom,” seen on TV haunts the memories of children and parents the nation over.

    A four-year-old boy is killed during a Mother’s Day outing at a cemetery, crushed by a 500-pound headstone that toppled from a grave. “The boy was walking behind his parents when the monument just fell over,” said the police.

    Fourteen postal workers are shot by a crazed gunman in Edmond, Oklahoma. Innocent victims. All tragedies.

Helping People Through Grief    In some instances, sudden deaths are made public by news coverage, and involve law enforcement agencies. Public speculation may add to the family’s bereavement and become an invasion of their right to mourn in private.

    The impact of sudden death is devastating, for it happens without warning or a chance to anticipate what lies ahead. It allows no time for goodbyes, no time to make amends or ask forgiveness for harsh words spoken in trivial quarrels, and no time to express the love one feels but doesn’t verbalize. The unfinished business of the day can never be transacted—it remains unresolved. It is like an unfinished song, the melody stopped in mid-phrase that longs for completion.

    Weizmaan and Kamm describe the tremendous impact it has on a survivor:

There is nothing to compare with the impact and profound shock of sudden unexpected death. The assault is a jolt to the system. After a sudden death the period of shock and disbelief is long lasting. Those who have suffered the sudden death of a loved one will experience a long period of numbness and denial.1

    In Grief, Dying, and Death, Therese A. Rando says about sudden death:

At least when a death has been anticipated, even though it puts tremendous emotional demands on the individuals involved, coping capacities are directed toward an expectable end. When the loss occurs, it has been prepared for. When this preparation is lacking, and the loss comes from out of the blue, grievers are shocked. They painfully learn that major catastrophic events can occur without warning. As a result, they develop a chronic apprehension that something unpleasant may happen at any time. It is this lack of security, along with the experience of being overwhelmed and unable to grasp the situation, that accounts for the severe postdeath bereavement complications that occur in cases of sudden death.2

    William Wordon in Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy identifies seven special features that tend to complicate the grief process for survivors.

  • Sudden death usually leaves the survivor with a sense of unreality that may last a long time.
  • Sudden death fosters a stronger-than-normal sense of guilt expressed in “if only ...” statements.
  • In sudden death, the need to blame someone for what happened is extremely strong.
  • Sudden death often involves medical and legal authorities.
  • Sudden death often elicits a sense of helplessness on the part of the survivor.
  • Sudden death leaves the survivor with many regrets and a sense of unfinished business.
  • In the event of sudden death, there is the need to understand why it happened. Along with this is the need to ascribe not only the cause but the blame. Sometimes God is the only available target and it is not uncommon to hear someone say, “I hate God.”3

    The devastating experience of sudden death, complicated by these unique factors, can frequently lead to negative behaviors, thoughts, and feelings which Parks and Weiss have labeled the “Unexpected Loss Syndrome.”4

    Sudden deaths are more likely to involve violence, accidents, mutilation, destruction and killing, stirring the worst imaginations in the bereaved. In some circumstances, the survivor cannot see the body, thus adding to the problem of failing to accept the finality of the loss.5

    Losing a loved one suddenly in a tragic event is hard. There is no escaping one’s sense of pain and loss if a return to life is going to occur. So we will look at advice care-givers can offer to help those grieving sudden loss in part 2 of this series on “Sudden Catastrophic Death.”

1 S.G. Weizman and P. Kamm, About Mourning, Support and Guidance for the Bereaved (Human Science Press, Inc., New York, 1985), p. 101.
2 Theresa A. Rando, Grief, Dying, and Death: Clinical Interventions for Caregivers (Champaign, Ill.: Research Press, 1984), p. 52. Used by permission.
3 William Wordon, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy (New York: Springer Publishing Company, 1982), pp. 84–85. Used by permission.
4 C.M. Parks and R.S. Weiss, Recovery from Bereavement (Basic Books, Inc., New York, 1983), pp. 93–94.
5 Beverley Raphael, The Anatomy of Bereavement. (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1983), p. 223.

      Excerpted from Helping People Through Grief by Delores Kuenning. Copyright © 1987, Delores A. Kuenning. ISBN: 0871239213. Published by Bethany House Publishers. Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.

      Title: "Without Warning: Understanding the Agony of Sudden Catastrophic Death (part 1)"
      Author: Delores A. Kuenning
      Publication Date: December 8, 2001

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