Sudden, unexpected death catches you off-guard and can challenge all of your coping skills. It is normal to feel as though nothing makes sense and that your world, as you have known it, is foreign and unsafe. Most of us believe we will have the opportunity to prepare for the death of a loved one, since 80% of all deaths are from illness or age-related circumstances. When you have no advance warning or opportunity to gather resources for understanding and support, grief is even more intense. The shock of the unexpected makes thinking and processing the reality even more difficult.
Griefwork requires the brain to be able to accept the reality of the death, but in the shock of the unexpected death, the brain may protect the person by shutting down. Brain studies show that grief has a significant impact on memory, perception, conceptualization, and even heart and digestive health. Taking care of yourself by giving yourself time off from work and other responsibilities is important. Accepting support for home maintenance, chores, and day-to-day responsibilities can strengthen your bodily reserves necessary to regain a sense of stability.
Griefwork also asks us to feel our grief. Intense grief reactions and emotions are strong and unpredictable. What is most helpful is to give yourself the space, time, and permission to feel whatever feelings arise and to be with them in gentle doses. The presence of a loving and understanding support person usually makes a significant impact in our ability to be with difficult emotions. Validation is a key element in being able to fully acknowledge, accept, reconcile, and integrate the death of a loved one. Seek out a support person who can honor and validate your feelings and whom you can trust for on-going support.
Feelings of guilt and regret are common reactions after a sudden death. Working with grief becomes a spiritual (not necessarily religious) practice of finding peace and meaning in the unexpected. You might find solace with strategies such as meditation, prayer, or journaling. Or you might benefit by seeking support from clergy or a grief support group.
The physical, cognitive, emotional and spiritual work of grief usually takes longer than we expect. Griefwork is active, repetitive and painful, but necessary if we are to go on loving and living well in a new world without your loved one. As you do this work, your grief will soften, and you will find that you do not forget your loved one, but rather bring his memory into the future with you. Within your griefwork is a choice… the choice to carry your loved one within you, in a new relationship, and to continue loving. The work is not easy, but it will change your experience from powerless to powerful, and from hopeless to hopeful.