Sudden Loss: 5 Ways it Differs from Expected Loss

There’s never a good time or good way to lose someone we love, but if we experience the sudden loss of a loved one…is it harder?

I shy away from this type of debate in the groups that I run. While validating a griever’s loss is one of the most important things a group can offer, a challenge of who is having it harder – or who is hurting more because of the way they lost their loved one – is not.
There are a lot of grief articles out there that discuss the difficulties of caregiving or losing a loved one to long term illness like cancer, and while this writing will not answer the question of what’s harder it will ask…is it different? And the answer is: absolutely.
Typically the support groups I have facilitated have been for the “newly bereaved” (within the first 13 months of their loved one’s passing). These are often attended by those whose loved one had been ill for a very long time, and I find typically that these grievers attend within the first three to six months of their loss.
Every once in awhile I will get a call from a person wanting to attend, and as we talk if they tell me that their loved one died a year ago or more and they’re just now feeling ready for help I will guess that they’ve experienced a sudden loss. Most of the time, I’m right.
This leads to the first way that sudden loss is different than a loss following a long term illness:
1. There is no time to prepare: It’s important to note that even with an “expected” loss, it can be challenging to adjust to a loved one no longer being here as nothing can ever truly prepare us for the finality of death. But for the griever who had no time to prepare, this challenge is greater. No time to prepare means having had no time to say goodbye, or no time to set things right. In some cases it means no time to figure out the final wishes of the deceased or what the “right” way to memorialize them would be. No time means not having the chance to say “I love you” one more time.
2. Sudden losses are more likely to happen with no one else around: I should say, at least when compared to those of someone who is on Hospice, lying in bed as their loved ones sit vigil. This can mean that survivors of sudden loss are left wondering about their loved one’s last moments. Were they frightened or in pain? Did they know how much I love them?
3. Sudden loss can leave more questions in its wake: How did this happen? Why was he/she there so late at night? For someone who lost a loved to a heart attack for example, could this have been prevented? Should I have done more? Often times a sudden loss means the loss of someone young, which will always leave behind the biggest question of all…..why???? Why him/her? Why did this have to happen? Why now?
4. The state of shock may last longer: While the “Stages of Grief” are used less often to explain the grieving process, there is still no doubt that grievers cycle through a variety of emotions as they begin to cope with their loss. Shock, numbness and disbelief are feelings every griever I’ve ever met with have experienced (again – even those who lost their loved one to a long term illness). So with no time at all to prepare, the griever with a sudden loss will likely spend more time in disbelief. The true work of grieving can’t typically start until a griever has even begun to come to terms with what’s happened, meaning a griever with a sudden loss could feel delayed in their ability to begin coping and moving forward.
5. A sudden loss is more likely to be the result of a tragic event: Of course every loss can feel “tragic” in its own way. But here it’s used to describe a sudden loss caused by something like a drinking and driving accident or an act of violence. If someone else was to blame for a loved’s passing the anger it causes can change a griever’s entire outlook on humanity and life in general. Someone who was once friendly and trusting may experience a resentment and deep-seated fury like they’ve never felt before. And for some, that rage may simmer in them for years after their loss.
In an effort to move forward, there are questions that the griever of a sudden loss may want to consider:
  • Can I accept that in life, and death, there are some questions that have no answers?
  • Is it possible to recognize that no matter how much time or energy I search in yearning for “closure” that I may never get it or find it?
  • Do the residual emotions of a sudden loss like guilt or anger serve a purpose and can I redirect the attention of that energy elsewhere?
  • Can I find a way now to express my love and my goodbyes to the person who is gone through a ritual or a type of remembrance?
  • Can I ask for forgiveness, find forgiveness, and live in peace even if my loved one isn’t here to relieve me of the pain of any unresolved issues?
Take time with this. Sleep on it. Pray or meditate on it. Take a walk and clear your head. Give yourself permission, space and time to consider the questions that have been left in the wake of your sudden loss and recognize that letting go of the pain and hurt is not the same thing as letting go of the love and memory of your loved one.
Find people to talk to who get it… and be patient for the answers that will begin to reveal themselves. There is peace to be found in those answers.

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About the Author
My name is Karyn Arnold and I am the founder of Grief in Common, Grief in Common is a website designed to connect and match those who are grieving based on background and similar experiences of loss, for online chats and opportunities to meet in person. I have been working in the field of grief and loss for over 15 years, facilitating bereavement groups, providing support one on one, and educating the community about the grief process. I love this work. I love the resilience of human spirit I see in this work and I have always felt honored and grateful to provide an outlet for a person to grieve.Unfortunately, loss is an inevitable part of life. And while it takes time and it’s never simple, I truly believe that within each of us is the strength and courage to heal, to live and to move forward, in ways that we may never have thought possible. So take the first step in figuring out what's next and where to go from here...go to today and connect with those who will understand.
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