Helping Others Manage Bereavement: Special Circumstances

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Bereavement in sudden, unexpected death versus terminal illness

On average, when one expects a loved one to die because of a terminal illness or old age, he or she has had some time to begin working out the meaning of the death.  For example, they will have already engaged in a struggle to accept the fact that nothing more medically can be done.  Knowing that death will happen, they will often try to complete “unfinished business” e.g., working out relationship conflicts they may have had with the dying person, etc.  They are also typically a bit more ready to take planful steps when death does occur, such as contributing to plans for the funeral.   

On the other hand, one’s experience of an unexpected, sudden death of a loved one is initially, much more difficult.   As a caring helper, you will likely witness severe bewilderment, shock, denial etc., associated with the experience of an unexpected death.  The person will seem more emotionally stunned and perhaps even incapacitated by the bad news.    The person will be somewhat more prone to say or do things based on emotional impulse.  He or she may suddenly engage in drinking heavily or experience suicidal ideation, accidental medication overdoses, etc.  In sum, they are usually in a more uncertain, risky emotional state and need to be watched over carefully by caring friends and family.  Therefore, it is especially critical to follow the advice offered in _______________________ with regard to simply ‘being there’, ready to listen, but being watchful and attentive to the cues regarding what the person needs. 

Loss of child or the yet-to-be-born

Loss of a child often entails some unique emotional dynamics and meaning for parents and family members.   Parents have invested emotionally in the bonding process and the altruistic love required by children, because they are so dependent on adults.  Parents have also spent time planning for childrens’ future and invested their hopes and dreams; many parents are physically and emotionally committed to making their children’s lives better by sacrificing time and working extra to afford more learning opportunities, chances to develop childrens’ talents etc.  Parents often plan on making these commitments and life changes even before a child is born.   In a similar vein, parents often hope their children turn out to be happier and ‘better off’ they themselves were growing up.  

Another emotional investment comes from the special role parents want to play in being a protector, or ‘running interference’ for their child socially.  It feels to many parents like the present world is just a more dangerous, complicated and less forgiving world to grow up in and they want to protect and smooth the developmental path for their child, if they can.  

All of these aspects of parents’ identity and personal investment are disrupted or lost when a child dies.  They feel they are never quite the same again after such a death.  

Friends and relatives will benefit if they are able to empathize when a parents elects to talk about the aforementioned emotional and physical investments they shared with their child;  raising a child changes one’s identity and sense of purpose and is especially painful and disorienting.  It is helpful to listen, encourage bereaved parents’ reflections about their deceased child e.g., the events they experienced together growing up, their pride in the child’s milestones they reached etc.  Parents will typically overlook behavioral problems or struggles their deceased child had and focus on their good qualities and assets.  Join them in celebrating these more joyful aspects of their child.  Also, after some passage of time, parents may be open to some support in the latter stages of bereavement e.g., the idea that you are interested in helping memorizialize their child through a scholarship, a contribution to a childrens’ hospital etc. 

Please do not make the mistake of trying to comfort a parent by ‘reminding them’ that they have other children or nieces/nephews they can shift their attention and love toward; or, making the error of suggesting that a prospective mom of a still-born or miscarried child can just ‘try again’ to have another child.   Such suggestions nearly always cause more pain and are terribly misguided.