Surviving a Violent Death

When accident, suicide or murder claim a loved one, how do you cope?

BY: Carol Staudacher

 
Coping with the violent death of your loved one--by murder, accident, or suicide--is one of the most severe challenges anyone can face. If you and your family have experienced such a loss, you have my deepest sympathy. When the agony begins, it can be impossible to imagine that there is any way to ever find the slightest relief from your ordeal. On top of experiencing the natural pain of any loss, you find yourself particularly vulnerable to two of the harshest aspects of the grief process: self-punishment and chaos.

The circumstances of sudden, violent death thrust survivors without warning, and often without any direction or adequate support, into a pool of torment where emotions batter and rage without mercy. At the same time, you are often required to deal with unfamiliar responsibilities, unrealistic demands, and painful intrusions (from the judicial system, the media, the medical world) that result from the violent death. All of this creates a high level of personal chaos and confusion.

Especially in the first year following your loved one's death, both the emotional punishment and the chaotic disorder may expand and intensify until they seem to be almost beyond human endurance. Once you get past the mind-saving numbness of the initial shock, mental pictures of the death may cause a nearly constant torture. Often you must cope with agonizing factual details as well as your own imaginings. And imagining the final moments can be an ongoing torment.

When you undergo such experiences, you are set apart, more than other survivors, from the world as you formerly knew and understood it. Your surroundings, and your circumstances--which, most likely, have undergone dramatic changes as a result of the death--may seem fragmented and unreal. Environments that once seemed safe can be threatening. People who once seemed only eccentric or marginally dysfunctional can seem intolerable, even dangerous. The world is perceived as something that should be protected against, rather than lived in.

It is natural under such circumstances to try to make sense of things, to grasp at something that will provide order. One of the most common ways many survivors seek to do this is by assuming guilt--to some degree or another--for their loved one's death. Their thinking goes, "If only I had said something, or done something, or recognized something, then this terrible loss would not have happened." In other words, "I had the power to prevent my loved one's death and I did not do it."

Except in the rarest of circumstances, the opposite is true. We do not have such power. Regardless of what we would like to believe, the world is unpredictable and chaotic and there is no direct line of cause and effect that leads from us to our loved one's death. There is not even an indirect line. Instead, an abundance of factors influence any person's course every single minute. Each of our lives is endlessly shaped and reshaped by interactions of environment, disposition, personal characteristics, cultural expectations, chance events, and a host of other random factors.

Even though assuming responsibility for such a tragedy would give order to that which is disorderly and excruciating--surviving a violent death--it is completely unreasonable for you to try to take on that burden. Anything can happen at any time to anyone. No matter how loving or wise or careful we are, we cannot change the unexpected nature of death.

 

Continued on page 2: »

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