Sudden Death & Grief

Posted on November 8, 2016 by Martin Oaks under Uncategorized
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Last weekend, my family and I had dinner at our favorite local restaurant. Just before the meal was served, at the table next to us a middle aged gentleman, who also was dining with his family, was seized with what proved to be a heart attack. A doctor, who was also in the restaurant, ministered to him as paramedics were summoned. The period of time before the emergency crew arrived seemed to drag on forever (in reality they were very quick to respond) – the family members were stricken in horror as the events unfolded. Finally, the man was put on a stretcher and removed. It was sometime before an air of conviviality returned to the room.

Sadly, I had noticed this family earlier as we were all waiting to be seated: they were having a very good time and were obviously quite close. Fifteen minutes later, everything had changed. Even though I am in the death care field, watching these events was appalling.

The impact of sudden death versus watching a loved one slip away over a period of time has generated a great deal of research. Based on my experience, sudden death produces a much harsher, more complicated set of variables to deal with in grief. Studies actually are contradictory about this matter: essentially, it seems to come down to individual differences in the survivors.

There are several gurus who have written about grief extensively: most famous of all is Elisabeth Kübler-Ross whose work began appearing in the late 1960’s. Her stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — have been the Holy Grail in this field since that time. George Bonanno’s four trajectories of grief and trauma reactions appeared around 2002: these stages emphasize resilience and recovery, providing a slightly different perspective. Two other researchers – Dale Vincent Hardt and Robert E. Kavanagh — have also added some very valuable insights. Hardt’s five stages include denial, false acceptance, pseudoreorganization, depression and reorganization/acceptance. The stages take up to a year to work through: they roughly mirror what Kübler-Ross had to say. Kavanagh’s seven steps include shock, disorganization, volatile emotions, guilt, loss and loneliness, relief, and finally re-establishment – his work is replete with detail.

There is some disagreement among these writers, but in general, they follow similar paths. There is no easy way to overcome loss, outside intervention is frequently required. For more information about grief and grieving, please visit our Grief & Grieving section of the website.

Watching the events this past weekend at the restaurant only brought home to me one more time, how important it is to have information about recovery at hand when tragedy does strike.

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