Important Note: This post contains stories about infant loss, mass-fatality violence and suicide. Client names have been changed for reasons of privacy.
One winter morning, Kayla found her four-month-old daughter Sara unresponsive in her crib. Not able to comprehend what was happening, Kayla bundled Sara up in a warm coat and a blanket and frantically drove to the office of Sara’s pediatrician for help. An autopsy later confirmed that Sara had died of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) sometime early in the morning. The pediatrician told Kayla that the cause of SIDS was largely unknown – he stressed that Sara’s death was not her fault; but if that were true, Kayla later asked me, why then did it feel like it was?
In 2017, Chris, a college student, decided to join her friends in Las Vegas for a country music festival on the Las Vegas strip. She later told me she "had a bit of a beer buzz and was feeling really relaxed" when she heard what sounded like "lots of champagne corks popping". Then people began running and "some people were falling spraying red everywhere." Terrified, Chris grabbed a friend’s hand and made toward the concert stage area in hopes of finding safety.
"I felt like an animal or something,” Chris said. "I feel ashamed when I think about it. My heart was coming out of my chest – I couldn’t think but it was like I was feeling: live, live, live!"
Just before reaching the concert stage Chris felt a searing pain in her right shoulder as her feet were knocked out from under her. She couldn’t breathe. Then everything went gray – and stayed gray for weeks after that fateful day. Three months later she wanted to know why she still found it hard to believe she had been shot – her painful shoulder was a daily reminder she couldn’t ignore. She wanted to know why she still couldn’t sleep through the night and why "every little thing" seemed to bring on bouts of shaking. And she wanted an answer to why she had lived, when 60 other concert-goers that day had died.
After school one day, 18-year-old Amanda found her father dead in the garage; he had taken his own life. In shock Amanda ran to the next door neighbor’s house. The police were called and came. Amanda was questioned: "Why did your father do this?" Amanda said she had no idea, but got the feeling she should have had an answer to that - and other - questions.
Six months later, I met Amanda for the first time at a weekend workshop I was presenting on forgiveness. Amanda was sure she was having some sort of "nervous break-down" because all she felt now following months of numbness and "floating above my body" was "great rage" -at her father, the police, life. And most of all at herself because she didn’t save her father and knew she somehow should have.
Healing Grief After the Tragic Death of a Loved One
The death of a loved one brings a sort of emotional trauma to family and friends: someone we once knew to be solid and permanent is now only available to us as thought and memory. Learning to come to terms with this reality is the very essence of the grief healing process.
As the examples of Kayla’s, Chris’s and Amanda’s experiences show, tragic loss brings with it a different sort of trauma.
Tragic loss occurs when a loved one suddenly and unexpectedly is killed as the victim of a crime, or dies due to suicide, an accident, sudden health event (a prevalent reality during the current pandemic) or natural disaster. In the context of tragic loss, trauma can be defined as an intensely stressful, distressing or disturbing experience that leaves survivors feeling deeply unsafe and often helpless. The word survivor is used purposefully here: when a loved one dies in a tragic way those left behind often feel just that: left behind. Left behind to survive what has happened – left behind to not only find a way to mourn a loss but also to deal with the trauma of how a loved one died.
When tragic loss is present, unanswerable questions as to why what happened has happened can complicate and prolong the grieving process as survivors try to make sense of something that has no clear or definitive answers. Some indications that emotional trauma is present and seeking healing include: prolonged shock; a sense of guilt over having not done more to somehow prevent the tragedy; survivors guilt for still being alive while others have died or a loved one is now gone; on-going ruminations about the circumstances of the death; persistent imagined visions of what might have happened; and/or intense and impairing acute grief symptoms beyond what is expected.
Strategies for Coping
After tragic loss, professional grief support, preferably with a grief support specialist trained in trauma-healing, can be helpful and is highly recommended, especially if you are still experiencing the effects of unresolved previous losses and traumas. Professional support can help you sort through confusing and conflicting emotions and express those emotions in constructive ways, thaw a sense of numbness, heal feelings of guilt, and more.
Here are some practical self-care suggestions for navigating grief in the aftermath of tragic loss:
Allow yourself time to process your loss. Acknowledge that healing takes energy. Coping with tragic loss depletes your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energy reserves beyond what happens in a normal grieving process. That is why good self-care is vitally important to practice at this time. Think in terms of:
- Establishing daily routines: Routine can help establish a sense of grounding and purpose.
- Pace: Set a pace for your daily routines that provide a sense of daily accomplishment (no matter how small at the beginning stages of grief) and purpose but don’t lead to stress overwhelm. This applies to exercise and enjoyable activities, as well as activities with deadlines.
- Purposeful relaxation: Making daily relaxation a wellness priority will allow you time to process your emotions and build your energy reserves.
- Basic self-care: Don’t let basic self-care slide - healing requires eating well, limiting alcohol and drug intake, moderating the intake of media reports that make you think of your own loss, and getting enough sleep. Keeping regular appointments with your doctor can help you avoid or minimize stress-related illness at this time.
Allow others to grieve in their own way. Grief is an individualized experience and grieving an individualized process. Not everyone - even within the same family – handles tragic loss in the same way. Try to allow others to express grief in their own way, without judgment, and with compassion and patience.
Seek out a support group of others who have experienced a similar tragedy. You don’t have to handle your loss alone.
Our first line of support when we are grieving is family and friends – they know us and often have a good sense of our inner workings. But support from family and friends is often not enough in the wake of tragic death (especially if your family members are grieving too); that is when joining a support group of others who have experienced a similar trauma can be so helpful. Such groups offer an outlet for expressing your thoughts and feelings about the trauma; and they can direct you toward legal, medical and other resources that might be helpful in navigating the aftermath of tragic loss.