Traumatic Grief And Providing Care Following Sudden Death

“Grief is messy and not linear – we don’t necessarily finish with one emotion and move to the next. Actually, it is more common for people to oscillate in their grief back and forth – there are times we are functioning and times when our grief is very much ‘in our face’ and overwhelming.” ~ Dr. Christina Harrington

Written by:

Dr. Christina Harrington 

Canadians, Americans and people from countries worldwide have experienced significant loss and stressors in the initial six months of 2020. Collectively, many are experiencing grief and loss in relation to the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, as we have tried to make sense of the loss of life as we knew and understood it.

In addition, in Canada, we have experienced a number of tragedies felt nationally; the shootings in Nova Scotia; the deaths of six Canadian Armed Forces members in a helicopter crash in the Ionian Sea, and most recently the tragedy with the Canadian Forces Snowbirds.

It is really important to acknowledge with any form of grief there will be a range of normal responses and emotions for each person and that these will change day to day; even hour to hour. We like to think of grief in the nice neat stages, e.g. denial, anger, bargaining etc., but really, grief is messy and not linear – we don’t necessarily finish with one emotion and move to the next. Actually, it is more common for people to oscillate in their grief back and forth – there are times we are functioning and times when our grief is very much ‘in our face’ and overwhelming.

How we will experience grief is affected by many factors, such as: 

–The whys?

Trying to make sense of this tragedy and understand why this occurred can impact how we grieve and can complicate grieving.

– Media:

Media can have a range of influences on grief. We have seen social media play a significant role in conveying compassion and helping with mourning; at a time when gathering to mourn is not possible. However, I hear often comments that media discussion of events can be a negative experience. For instance, you may be feeling questioned or persecuted by the public for your role as an organization or member in such a tragedy. This creates moral distress and adds to the weight of your grief. (Note: first response communities and their families have been deeply impacted by these events as well and recognition of this is important.). From the perspective of family, friends and colleagues, seeing repeated images in the news or the idea that ‘this is the news’ can be equally overwhelming.

– Relationship:

How we feel connected to these death and losses will also impact our grief. The closer the relationship the deeper the impact. This can look like relationship to the families and victims, communities, province, the RCMP and/or other first response communities.

It’s also really important to note that trauma can happen at the same time as grief and it can complicate the grieving process or hinder our ability to accommodate the death/loss at all. This leaves us stuck and distressed. I’d strongly encourage that if this resonates with you, that you lean on natural and professional supports.

Our brains are hardwired to help us survive, and we respond to terrifying events in a particular way that can have lasting impacts on our emotional and physical health. This could show up in many ways. Perhaps you are really having a hard time controlling emotions; maybe you are replaying or thinking about the event/ an image; you could be feeling on edge/jumpy, or like something else bad is going to happen; or, maybe you feel checked out and are not able to feel emotions like love or joy, when you normally would.

What is traumatic is somewhat perceptual, so different people will experience the same event differently. Trauma can be cumulative. Think of the repeated exposure to traumatic events; we even know that being notified of a loved one’s death can reach traumatic thresholds. Some of the factors that can contribute to this are a sense of preventability; senselessness; timeliness (e.g. a young death) or, intentionality of the act (someone exercised choice to commit this crime).

Rituals, memorials and symbols are really important after a death. They help us mourn. Soon after a death or tragedy, it is common for us to struggle with words to describe how we feel, or words just feel inadequate. The procedural parts of our memory are differently impacted and so it is often easier to ‘do something’ and take action to express how we feel. Think about songs, poem, art, or rituals (ex. Flags at half mast). They communicate so much more, are widely understood and allow many people to connect in varied ways.

During COVID, when we can’t gather, we can still find alternate ways to express our grief and mourn together. We are seeing some of this happen in public forums. It doesn’t have to be something specific that everyone must do, what is most is important is that it is something meaningful. What is meaningful for one person won’t necessarily be meaningful for others.

Finally, it is really important to mention the sense of pride that many people feel in memorials and ceremonies when they hear the impact of their loved one on the lives of others. Or, in line of duty deaths when the sacrifice represents so much. Often we focus on all the negative emotions in grief but pride can play a very important role in our resiliency and ability to move forward.

Linked to this blog below are articles, stemming from research that asked the bereaved explicitly about their experiences with sudden death (being able to see their loved one, and wartime/line of duty deaths). We asked if the professionals are getting it right and perhaps where we have missed the boat. I am a strong believer that while we may know lots of broad strokes, we need to continually learn form the bereaved themselves to better understand their needs and what we may offer.

Family Members’ Experience With Viewing In The Wake Of Sudden Death

Meaning Making In Wartime Bereavement: Lessons Learned From Bereaved Parents And Siblings

Providing Care Following Sudden Death

If anyone has any questions you can email Dr. Christina Harrington or call 905-388-2157

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