Traumatic Grief: Our Feelings After the Sudden Death of an Aging Loved One

i-heart The McPherson kids, all grown up with kids of their own, always described their dad as someone who would be there forever. He was, as Thomas (the oldest son) told me in a session, “an old-fashioned tough SOB” with warm love for his family and friends and the kind of flinty health that seemed like a permanent rebuke to sickness, even death. He was the kind of guy who, even in his late 70s, was always happily fixing things in and around his house (and those of his children). It’s why no one would have been surprised when he went out on the roof to fix an attic window that was letting in an uncomfortable draft. But something happened. He must have slipped and toppled off the roof; he died instantly. No one saw it, no one was there, and a man who seemed indestructible was suddenly gone.  

The traumatic grief felt by the McPherson family isn’t unusual. A sudden death is horrible enough when it comes from a heart attack, a rapidly progressing disease, or other more natural causes. Sudden death leaves people with a hole that’s opened up in their lives and a sense of confusion, shock, and distress. But a traumatic death combines the horror of sudden death with something “violent, mutating, or destructive, random and unpredictable.” This kind of death from accident, murder, or suicide brings with it its own specific kind of bereavement. Sudden death is a grief that some people fear that they’ll never survive. Healing from the traumatic loss of an older parent isn’t an easy process. Family, friends, colleagues, counselors, and others can be of great help as the griever struggles with the complex emotions that have surfaced as a result of this tragic death.

Understanding the Types of Traumatic Grief

Traumatic grief is very different from the normal pain of bereavement. In normal grief (uncomplicated grief), a broad range of feelings and behaviors surface as a result of the loss. Sadness is the most common feeling experienced by those who grieve an uncomplicated death. In comparison, a feeling of shock surfaces after a sudden and unnatural death, one that robs the family of a chance to say goodbye. Sudden death heightens the sense of pain with the belief that, even if it couldn’t have been prevented, it was completely unnecessary and senseless. There are a few factors that contribute to the extent and scope of grief caused by a traumatic loss. These overlap, of course, but have variations.

  • Natural Factor: When a loved one dies from a natural disaster, there is grief, but the knowledge that this was caused by something uncontrollable can lessen feelings of guilt. That doesn’t make thinking about their final moments any easier, of course, but it does allow for some comfort in knowing that “nothing could have been done.” However, for many people, the traumatic grief they feel is heightened by an anger at the world, or at God, for creating such devastating events. Losing a loved one to a natural disaster undermines the assumptive world we had believed. We no longer feel safe as we once did.  
  • Deliberate Human Actions: If your loved one died as a result of a homicide, your feelings of distress, rage, and blame have a target, especially if the perpetrator has been arrested. If the murder was a result of a random act of violence, the sheer senselessness of the death can be overwhelming for the survivors. The family of the victim is traumatized by grief and anger and the horrible knowledge that this random act of violence didn’t have to happen. Death of loved one as a result of war or terrorism increases feelings of fear, helplessness, and powerlessness. These strong feelings can complicate the grief process.
  • Accidental Human Actions: Deaths that occur as a result of car, boating, hiking and other accidents happen suddenly and cause a great deal of trauma. If a biking accident, for example, happened far from where the survivor lives, there are other obstacles to overcome.  Driving or flying to the scene of the accident or to an unfamiliar emergency clinic or hospital can be extremely distressing and confusing. If your loved one is on life support, other questions arise that physicians turn to you to answer. In your state of distress, questions about withdrawing or continuing life support are perceived as cruel and unbearable. Yet, you may have to make these decisions. That your loved one was “at the wrong place at the wrong time” gets played out over and over again.  There is no comfort to be found in those thoughts. The terrible truth is that your loved one is dead. 
  • Self-Inflicted: Death by suicide is considered a stigmatizing death. Survivors often torture themselves with thoughts related to “If only I would have done…” Or, “I should have done….”  Survivors of those who have died by suicide struggle with feelings of guilt, shame, fear, rejection, anger, and deep sorrow. The question that these survivors often ask is “Why?” “Why did my loved one leave me?” “How could this happen in my family?” Family and friends who have experienced the suicide death of a loved one may feel abandoned and alone. Speaking with a grief counselor or participating in a grief group with others who have experienced traumatic loss may be helpful.   
  • Absurdity. The McPhersons’ loss was, to Thomas, gut-wrenchingly absurd. It was a word that came up in our conversations a lot. Who knows what happened? Maybe his father just forgot he set his hammer down and stepped awkwardly on it. It was so “pointless,” as Thomas said. This can be illustrated in the difference of attitude between family members of soldiers. Families who believe that the wars being fought were worth it are no less grief-stricken when a loved one is killed, but the death is more comprehensible to them. Those who found the war pointless are no less proud of their family member, but they find the death to be more tragic, and less understandable. This dynamic was explored in Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam, a study of PTSD.

No matter the cause, traumatic death can place excessive stress on a family’s ability to cope with loss. Survivors of traumatic loss often feel numb as they attempt to face the reality of the loss.  They may feel as if they are in a daze for a long period of time because reality is just too hard to accept. People experiencing traumatic loss need time, support, and patience as they learn to accept the unacceptable.

The Terrible Effects of Traumatic Grief

Some of the dynamics that come into play with traumatic grief include the feeling of guilt that the death  could have been prevented. In Thomas’ case, he wondered whether he should have insisted that Dad  take greater precautions when he did household chores. The McPherson family felt they had been robbed. They thought they had more time to spend with their Dad. No one had a chance to say goodbye.  Unfinished business would never be completed. For family members who have lost older adult relatives, this can be a complex dynamic.

When a parent or other loved one gets older, family and friends sense that the time is coming to talk about death and dying. No one, however, wants to begin this conversation because it’s so hard to think that your father, mother, spouse, sibling, friend will die. Living with impermanence is a challenge for most of us. That’s why this can be such a traumatic experience when a sudden and violent death happens to an older friend or relative. The survivors feel guilty for waiting too long to discuss the difficult subject of death.    

When families are dealing with any kind of traumatic loss, they may have trouble sleeping and eating. Some people have trouble concentrating. Others become irritable, agitated, anxious and angry. They are haunted by intrusive thoughts about the way in which their loved one died. When these difficult feelings persist, grief counseling may be an option.

Treating Traumatic Grief

The following are a few recommendations for anyone who is experiencing traumatic loss:  

  • Set up a healthy routine. While this can be hard, it’s a reminder that life has to continue moving forward. Eating, sleeping, working, spending time with loved ones — all of this is an important part of the grieving process. Grieving is probably one of the most difficult yet most natural life experiences. People need to be as healthy as they can be in order to manage the demands of the grief experience. People who are grieving the loss of a significant family member or friend will never be the same. We are changed by death. We need all of our strength to manage this devastating experience. We must stay as healthy as possible.
  • Direct support groups. If a loved one was lost in an accident or a disaster, there are survivor groups set up to help victims deal with the similar loss they are feeling. While grief is intensely personal, there are people who understand and are willing to help.  
  • Taking action. In many cases, something can be done. Families of those lost to gang violence create anti-gang initiatives. People who have lost children to kidnappers fight for stricter laws or safer play areas. People protest wars, advocate for cleaner drinking water, support stricter controls over pain medication, implore their legislators for greater regulation of firearm sales, and participate in walks to raise awareness for suicide prevention. Many survivors fight for more humane ways to live in our communities and in our world. To find meaning as a result of a loved one’s tragic death is an important aspect of bereavement. To raise your voice in support of community awareness is a great way to channel the anger and sadness you feel into something worthwhile.
  • Traumatic grief therapy. At Institute on Aging, we offer 8-week traumatic loss grief groups. These are closed and structured sessions led by professionals who can help families live with and understand the grief and deep sorrow they feel. We understand the complex emotions of anger, resentment, sadness, and confusion that is felt, especially by people who have suddenly and traumatically lost an older loved one. For people who need more, we offer an advanced 8-week program after completing the first one. Everyone grieves differently, and we want to be there for you. Our groups are for people of any age who have lost a loved one to sudden or complicated death. You are not alone.

One of the most important things we can offer is that the death doesn’t have to define your relationship with your deceased loved one. We honor their lives by being neither consumed with nor obsessed by their death. We mourn them as we remember them. We honor their whole lives and reflect on what they have meant to us. We believe that it is an honor to grieve. Please don’t feel that you have to grieve alone. We can share this devastating experience with you.   

If you’ve suffered traumatic grief, or known someone who has, contact us to learn more about individual and group services for grief counseling at Institute on Aging.

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Dr. Patrick Arbore

Dr. Patrick Arbore, ED.d, is the Director and Founder of the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention and Grief Related Services. A nationally recognized expert on suicide and a powerful advocate for mental health services for older adults, Dr. Arbore is a role model for living life with true compassion. He's an experienced presenter and has held seminars and workshops on topics relevant to older adults’ mental health.

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