Dealing with Unexpected Loss

The challenges of a different kind of grief

Posted Apr 06, 2015

 Timothy Krause/Flickr: Memorial
Source: Photo: Timothy Krause/Flickr: Memorial
Dealing with loss is always emotionally challenging.  It can take a long time to get to a place of acceptance or rebuild enough of a “new normal” to move forward and rebuild a workable version of one’s life.  But when the losses are sudden, totally unexpected, or accompanied by horror because they are senseless, the cognitive, emotional, psychological, and physical impact is profound.  Recently, there have been a series of events in the news that exemplify the kind of horrifying losses that seem almost impossible to rebound from and evoke the kind of responses we are most likely to exhibit when faced with such overwhelming trauma.

The fact that a Germanwings co-pilot sped up a plane on descent, deliberately crashing into the mountainside of the French Alps and killing all 150 people on board in an act of premeditated murder, is beyond imagining.  Tragically, in a different part of the world, seven siblings from an Orthodox Jewish family recently died when a hotplate in their home caught fire and burned down the stairs, leaving the children trapped in their second floor bedrooms.  In rural Southwest Florida, a church van returning from a Palm Sunday revival accidentally ran through a stop sign, resulting in the deaths of eight passengers and injuring 10 others. In all cases, the loss of life is staggering and completely senseless. Sadly, there are countless other examples of tragedies that happen every day resulting in the sudden end of lives for the victims and forever altering the lives of loved ones left behind.

Whether we are offering support to family, friends, and coworkers who have been intimately affected, or grieving as an entire nation, there are some specific dynamics to consider when addressing loss that is so sudden:

Shock and disbelief can initially overshadow griefIt helps to stay mindful of this, as the lack of overt sadness can seem confusing and be misinterpreted by professionals and loved ones.  It makes sense that there is an initial refusal to accept a loss that is horrifying or unexpected.  The fact that there is no time to “prepare” or begin to slowly grieve a loss that has been predicted leaves loved ones feeling like the rug has been pulled out from under them.  Feelings of shock or disbelief can manifest as emotional shut down or numbness.  This needs to be validated and never pathologized.

The suddenness might invoke more anger or outrage that needs to be addressed. This is important to know as we need to create a safe and accepting space for anger to be fully processed.  Many people believe that it’s important to “peel away” anger in order to get to the grief.  But in cases of sudden, unexpected loss, anger needs to be expressed, witnessed, and soothed before grief can be accessed.  The level of outrage is often in keeping with the degree of horror or the senselessness of the event and needs to be normalized.  When anger is not safely expressed or goes “underground” it will inevitably manifest in other destructive ways.

There might be a stronger need to “fill in the blanks” when the loss is unexpected. Human beings don’t like the unknown and find it almost impossible to live with not having answers for tragic life events.  They either relentlessly attempt to find the answers or begin to fill in the blanks on their own.  Even when their explanations cannot be proven or are obviously off the mark, it initially still feels better than having to live with “not knowing” why something awful occurred. Clinicians should pay attention to how those blanks get filled in, especially when self-blame becomes a part of the explanation.

Sudden loss might evoke more self-blame in those left behind. In response to a completely unpredictable loss it’s not uncommon for people to believe they ‘could have done something,” “should have seen it coming,” or “want forgiveness” from those who have perished.  All of these feelings imply that they are somehow to blame.  This is a way to try to re-claim the feelings of power and control that get taken from them, particularly when loved ones die unexpectedly or tragically.  In these cases, one of the hardest things to come to terms with is the fact that there is nothing they could have done to prevent or change the outcome.

When the loss makes no sense, there may be a stronger desire to find or attach meaning to the deaths. Part of why it's so difficult to grieve sudden losses is because they are so senseless.  Although it might take a long time, many people eventually find comfort in being able to attach their own personal meaning to tragic events. This can be expressed in spiritual terms, or can take the form of using the death to honor and memorialize the departed through events that educate or celebrate. Through tragedies we can heighten awareness about life threatening issues.  It’s also an opportunity to be reminded about the preciousness of life and the importance of gratitude.

Although we are faced with devastating losses that can leave behind a residue of profound trauma, these experiences can also represent the extraordinary resiliency of the human spirit and our capacity to come together in grief and assist one another in healing.