Coping With Sudden Death

Joan Didion and her husband, the writer, John Gregory Dunne, were married for nearly forty years.
On December 30, 2003, they visited their adopted daughter, Quintana, who was in a coma in the intensive care unit after being treated for pneumonia and septic shock.

That evening, they returned to their New York apartment. As they sat down to dinner John Dunne suffered a massive and fatal coronary.

Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, is an examination of her grief following her sudden loss. She says,

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be.”

The sudden death of a loved one poses enormous challenges and affects the following aspects of our life.
1. Emotions

Most people have feelings of shock and confusion as a result of the death of someone close to them, but these feelings can be intensified due to the suddenness of the death.

The experience for Joan Didion was beyond anything she could have imagined. She says,

“We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterating, dislocating to both body and mind.”

The suicide of a loved one is often sudden and unexpected, shattering our sense of well-being. The immediate impact is like a tsunami.

‘You are aware of being picked up, spun around and swept along and it is frightening. You are one among many. You feel your vulnerability, having no control over what is happening. You feel disorientated, unaware of your surroundings. You feel apprehensive, sensing imminent danger.’

2. Responsibilities

Despite the shock, there are moments of clarity. There are things to do that can’t wait.

When our son Adam died I flew interstate to deal with some important matters. I was glad of the support of my two surviving sons. My sister and her husband were there to offer assistance as well.

The ‘to do’ list’ seemed overwhelming. It included – hearing a report from the police involved in the investigation of Adam’s death; viewing the body and ‘saying our goodbyes’; visiting the site of the incident; making arrangements for Adam’s body to be cremated and released to my sister; and retrieving Adam’s motor vehicle from the car wreckers where it was impounded.

Aware of the prayers of family and friends, I was given the strength to deal with the waves of emotion triggered by each new experience and the clarity of thought to make reasoned decisions.

Didion also had this sense of ‘being focused’ and ‘on task.’ She says,

“I had entered at the moment it happened a kind of shock in which the only thought I allowed myself was that there must be certain things I needed to do.”

3. Expectations

We look for certainty in our relationships but as grief support counselor Nancy Weil suggests,

“The idea of certainty in our life is an illusion.”

The sudden death of a loved one is a force to be reckoned with. It changes everything. In a split second, the world as you experience it is dramatically altered.

Joan Didion and her husband sat down to dinner. It was late. They felt concern for their daughter but remained confident she would make a full recovery. They were physically tired and emotionally empty. Their priorities in life were constant. They would be there for their daughter and they were committed to their respective writing careers. But did they recognise the potential threat?

Didion writes,

“Life changes fast.
  Life changes in an instant.
  You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

Losing someone we love without warning is unfathomable. Understanding what their death might mean is beyond knowing. We are incapable of imagining the reality of life without the other.

Sometimes our expectations are illogical. Our mind is making its own adjustments and the process is often confusing.

After a death, there is the task of sorting out the person’s clothes. It is something you do, part of the ritual, some kind of duty.

Joan Didion began sorting through her husband’s possessions. Some items of clothing related to specific activities, like morning walks in Central Park. Most ended up in bags and were taken across the street to St James’ Episcopal Church. Her husband’s shoes presented an unexpected obstacle. She writes,

“I stopped at the door to the room. I could not give away the rest of his shoes. I stood there for a moment and then realised why: he would need shoes if he were to return.”

In sudden death, you are called upon to face a massive gap between the way the world should be, with your loved one alive, and the way the world is. The person whom you loved, and who contributed so much to your life, is taken away without any warning. This is a major violation of your expectations.

Joan Didion was rarely separated from her husband during their forty years together. Following his death, she soon realised she had no one to discuss things with. She writes,

“There was nothing I did not discuss with John. Because we were both writers and both worked at home our days were filled with the sound of each other’s voices. I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right but we were each the person the other trusted.”

4. Reconstructing the future

The sudden death of a loved one spells the sudden destruction of the world you used to know. It may feel like a mess, a complete disaster. But it falls to you to discover how the pieces fit back together again. Don’t believe for a moment you will be able to recreate the past.

Joan Didion faced the many challenges associated with reconstructing the future. Not long after she brought her daughter, Quintana, home from the hospital the coloured Christmas lights that adorned the living room burned out, went dead. She says,

“I bought new strings of coloured lights. This served as a profession of faith in the future. I take the opportunity for such professions where and when I can invent them since I do not actually feel this faith in the future.”

For people who have lost a loved one to suicide, reconstruction occurs on several levels.

There is a need to reconstruct a truthful narrative of the events that lead to your loved one’s death. The editing process is ongoing and can be influenced by new information as it becomes available, a new perspective on the facts, and a new awareness of the complexities of things like mental illness and suicidal thinking.

This retrospective construction of events makes the situation more manageable. It gives a perception of logical progression but may also highlight missed opportunities to intervene. As with other areas of our life, self-appraisal can be beneficial as long as we avoid burdening ourselves with guilt. We must not surrender to the weight of perceived unmet responsibility. “Is there something more I could have done?” Remember, “You acted on the knowledge you had at the time.”

There is a need to accept the positive consequences of your loved one’s death. This is not intended as a heartless statement. I don’t want to diminish the tragic circumstances of your loved one’s death. I don’t want to be dismissive of the traumatic experience you have undergone. But I do want to remind you that there is cause for hope.

The sudden death of a loved one, whatever the circumstances, can make you appreciate life more than you ever would have; can inspire you to be more attentive to the needs of the people around you; and can motivate you to work towards addressing some of the issues that may have caused your loved one’s death.

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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