A Thief In the Night: The Tragedy of Sudden Death

It has been said, ‘time heals all wounds.’ I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.

Rose Kennedy, 1890-1995

Witnessing a loved one’s death due to a progressive illness is a heart-wrenching experience. In some ways, it’s like the clock stopped when you heard the terrible news – time seems to stand still as you go through each day with this huge, dark cloud hanging over your head. On the other hand, time flies much too quickly while you savor each remaining moment with the one who will be taken from you all too soon.

When the end finally comes, your sorrow may be accompanied by a sense of relief. You take comfort in the fact that your loved one is no longer suffering, and your shock is tempered by the fact that you’ve been trying to prepare for this day for a long time. You began the work of processing your grief the moment you learned about your loved one’s illness, and now you try to believe that you’ll feel better…in time.

Death Without Warning

But what happens when you have no time to prepare? What happens when you’re blindsided by a sudden tragedy…when your loved one dies as the result of an accident, a suicide, or in an act of violence? One minute everything is “normal,” and the next moment your life has changed forever.

Grief counselors have a name for the mind-numbing, earth-shattering grief that follows a sudden, tragic death. Traumatic grief describes a severe bereavement that some experts have likened to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Car or plane accidents, natural disasters, and murder are some examples of deaths that may leave survivors with traumatic grief.

Signs of Traumatic Grief

The signs of traumatic grief are essentially the same as those of any grief. The main difference with traumatic grief is that these signs and symptoms may seem magnified or intensified. For example,

  • Shock – If your loved one died as the result of a sudden or senseless tragedy, the shock may leave dazed, confused, and vulnerable. In the case of traumatic grief, the shock may also take longer to subside.
  • Anger – When a traumatic death occurs, grief-stricken survivors may feel deep, raging anger toward the person they deem responsible for the death, such as a drunk driver or a murderer. If your loved one died as the result of an accident or natural anger, you may feel angry toward God.
  • Guilt – You’ve probably heard of survivor guilt, wherein survivors of a mass tragedy feel guilty because they escaped with their lives while others didn’t. If your loved one died suddenly, you may also feel guilty because of unresolved conflicts with the deceased.
  • Depression – After a traumatic death, you may find yourself plagued with thoughts about the event that took your loved one’s life. What were her final moments like? What was she thinking and feeling? Perhaps you see no hope for the future. Such thoughts are normal, but if they persist or become obsessive, you may be sliding from grief into depression. If this sounds familiar, call your doctor. Depression is a serious illness, and your doctor has treatments to help you.
  • Anxiety – Losing a loved one in a sudden violent or traumatic event shakes one’s sense of security to the core. Survivors may become hyper-aware of life’s fleeting nature, and thus afraid to take risks or even go about their daily business.

Time Alone Can’t Heal, but Healing Does Take Time

When a loved one’s traumatic death shakes your world, time alone won’t heal. Healing will come in time, however, as the sheer intensity of your shock and sorrow eases. Until then, do everything you can to take care of yourself by resting, eating well, and seeking the help and support of others.

Rose Kennedy lost a son in war, a daughter in a plane crash, and two sons in political assassinations. As the matriarch of one of America’s most prominent families, she suffered in the glare of the public eye. Although few of us can begin to imagine the enormity of her suffering, too many of us have known the pain of traumatic grief.

If you’ve lost a loved one in a sudden or violent tragedy, please feel free to share your thoughts and feelings here. Sharing your story may help to ease your pain, and you may be able to help someone who is suffering their own traumatic grief.

Discuss: A Thief In the Night: The Tragedy of Sudden Death

2 People Discussing
  • My brother decided to end his life. In some way, I saw it coming. He struggled for years with mental illness and addiction. We did not have any communication for a few months before his death. I had to step back for myself and my kids. But still….I feel so empty. I feel alone. I feel dark. I miss him so much, I take some comfort in knowing that he is no longer in such pain. But….. I just feel so empty, guilty, and angry (at myself).
    I planned his funeral myself, even helped the mortuary prepare him for cremation. I thought it may be somewhat therapeutic. It wasn’t. I can’t get the image out of my mind. i sometimes feel like I want to succomb to my own depression. I hope this goes away, or lessens or something. This sucks.

    Comment by Kamryn — May 21, 2011 @ 3:34 pm

  • I agree with Rose Kennedy that time does not heal all wounds. My 26-yr-old son died three years ago…I think I was in shock the whole first year, the second year when I admitted to myself my son was not coming back I was in deep pain, this third year may even be worse, he is in my thoughts almost every second…it feels like there is a hole in the air and no one seems to notice but my husband and me (and maybe our other son who will not talk about his brother). I believe I will live the rest of my life with this pain and void. My son left two sons, five and two at the time of his death, his older son – I can see the pain in his eyes and I wonder how his life will turn out…and this adds to my pain…his sons are missing someone very special and they need their daddy. Our son had a motorcycle accident and broke his leg, after eight surgeries the doctor(s) decided to take the plate and screws holding his bones together because the infection from the broken leg would not heal…and he died from a pulmonary embolism. How do you die – in the hospital – from a broken leg?? I am, and will be, forever sad.

    Comment by Deborah Herrmann — September 7, 2012 @ 3:01 am

Share Your Thoughts