Coping With The Unexpected

No one ever has plans for a crisis. We can’t always predict what a day will bring. Can we summon the courage to face an unexpected catastrophe?

Pauline and Hilton Carrigan lost their 24-year-old son Will to suicide on Christmas Day 2015. Mr Carrigan said, “Will was a fun-loving larrikin. He was just an ordinary country boy that did his work, loved his sport and loved all his mates.”

The Carrigan’s can see how their son was struggling but never considered he would take his life. Like many other parents who have lost a child to suicide, they admit, “We never saw it coming.”

Death by suicide is sudden, sometimes violent, and usually unexpected. It catches us off guard and forces us to grieve without warning.

Former Family Therapist Gary LeBlanc lost his son Shaun to suicide. Dr LeBlanc says,

“We all struggle with trials of many kinds. But, life can also impact us with the unexpected, those events which stun and overwhelm us, which come crashing in on us like a tornado leaving us shocked and numb, for which we can never be adequately prepared.”

Shaun was a compassionate person, loving and gentle. He graduated from University with a Master of Arts degree in sociology. He established his own business, a small retail outlet, while he waited for a position where he could utilise his qualifications.

It was the nature of Shaun’s death which left the family disturbed and distressed. He shot himself with a hunting rifle, kept locked in a cabinet in the basement of the family home.

Why suicide presents itself as an option for some people and not others is a baffling mystery. Dr LaBlanc says,

“The decision to take one’s life is made because of inner perceptions that person has of reality that may not correlate to external circumstances. The world in the mind of the suicidal person is not the real world but a radical distortion of it.”

The difficulty with sudden death is that it is unforeseeable and doesn’t give us the luxury of being able to prepare ourselves. Some unexpected events, like the loss of a loved one to suicide, occur without warning and have a lasting impact, changing our lives forever.

Dr Kenneth J Doka says,

“In a sudden loss, there may be a sense of trauma – a loss of a sense of a safe and predictable world, as well as a profound sense of shock over the loss, and a legacy of unfinished business.”

A sudden unexpected death is challenging, shattering our view of the world and disrupting our daily routines. The shock and grief can be overwhelming generating intense responses as anger, guilt, sudden depression, despair and hopelessness.

Alan D Wolfelt  Ph D says,

“A suicide death is often traumatic. You have come to grief before you are prepared to mourn. By its nature, your grief is complicated in that the death is premature, usually unexpected, and calamitous.”

While we have little control over the unexpected tragic event itself, we do have control over how we respond.
Dealing with loss is always challenging. There is no time to absorb what has happened or prepare oneself how to cope.

The grief that accompanies a sudden, unexpected loss can affect every part of your being, physically, emotionally, spiritually, socially and mentally.

Psychotherapist Lisa Ferentz identifies several normal and acceptable responses to unexpected loss. She says,

1. The suddenness might invoke more anger

We need to create a safe space for anger to be processed. When anger is not expressed or goes ‘underground’ it will manifest in other destructive ways.

2. There might be a stronger need to ‘fill in the blanks’ 

Human beings don’t like the unknown and find it almost impossible to live with not having answers for tragic life events.

3. The sudden loss might evoke more self-blame in those left behind

It is not uncommon for people to believe they ‘could have done something,’ ‘should have seen it coming,’ or ‘want forgiveness’ from those who have died. One of the hardest things to accept is that there is nothing you could have done to prevent or change the outcome.

Sudden losses, like all losses, are distinct and are likely to affect survivors in many different ways. One cannot compare loss. The greatest loss is the one that the grieving person is suffering. Understanding grief helps survivors cope with the uncertainties of life.

Dr Kenneth J Doka believes the realities of grief are often obscured or distorted. He insists that each of us has our own set of experiences and distinct ways of coping. Being aware of the elements of grief alleviates personal doubts, fears, and anxieties.

1. Grief is individual:

Grief is as individual as a snowflake. It follows a personal pathway. Your grief is as unique as you are. While there are some patterns to how grief unfolds, each of us responds to a different loss in a different way.

2. There is no timetable to grief:

Grief is like a roller coaster. There will be ups and downs. You will have good days and bad days. Grief doesn’t have a predictable timetable. Years later you may feel a surge of grief. In grief, you never get off the ride.

3. We keep a continuing bond with those we love:

Grief is not about detachment. It is not about ‘letting go.’ It is not about erasing our painful memories. People we love become part of our own biographies. We cannot separate ourselves from them. They have left an indelible mark on who we are, how we see ourselves. We never lose our connection with someone we loved.

4. There can never be closure:

No matter what actions we take we can never bring our emotions to a close. We can never find release from our grief. Grief is not an illness from which we recover. It is a lifelong journey. Grief is about learning to live with loss.

5. We each process loss in our own way:

It is assumed that people who openly express emotions in grief, and publicly show their grief, are healthier than those who do not. But this is not so. We all differ in the way we process our grief.

The emotional style of grieving is an intuitive pattern – individuals cope with grief by expressing and exploring their emotions.

In an instrumental pattern, grief is experienced physically, such as in restlessness or bodily pain. Here we think or do our grief.

The way you grieve is not a measure of how much you loved the person you lost.

The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.    Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and John Kessler

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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