Bereavement After an Unnatural Death

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

When we hear about someone dying from an unnatural death, resulting from an accident, suicide, or homicide, we all cringe a little bit.  Our reaction occurs despite the victim being a stranger, anonymous, and a completely unknown entity to us.  At that moment we feel vulnerable, a little more cognizant of our own mortality, and a little unsure of what tomorrow will bring for us--a bouquet of success or a bouquet of sympathy?  In that moment,  the news of an unnatural death gives us a glimpse of this thing called fate and we realize how fate keep us suspended, hanging on to life by a cobweb.  Our reaction is a mixture of fear, sympathy, and grief.       

When a loved one dies from an unnatural death, survivors experience grief that is most complex to comprehend and most difficult to live with.  At an emotional level, death is always unacceptable, even if from a natural cause and expected as the inevitable result of a long and chronic illness.  Death is a failure.  We have failed the deceased and the deceased has failed us.  Irrational?   Sure.  But, true.  Bereavement after an unnatural death not only requires an acceptance of the death of a loved one, but also reconciliation with the brutality and stigma of how the person died.  

We are not prepared to let go of our loved ones, even if they are of a "ripe" age.  How can we accept it when death seizes the right to live of people who are in their youth? It seems so "unfair" and "unjust"--"a cruel act of fate," we say.  Even firm believers find their faith in God shaken.  Unnatural deaths by accident, suicide, and homicide is the leading cause of death before age 40.  Therefore, bereavement more frequently occurs in younger families.  Young children without a parent are likely to feel the effects for many years to come.  Aging parents have to come to terms with the loss of a young and able-bodied son or daughter. 

Closest survivors of a victim of unnatural death not only suffer from grief, they suffer from trauma.  For healing, trauma needs more urgent attention that grief.  The word, "trauma" literally means "wound."  In a psychological sense, trauma refers to a state of extraordinary pain and suffering.  Families and friends of those who are murdered or killed under horrific circumstances may not even witness the death, but they are likely to vividly imagine and replay in their minds the person's last moments of violent death.  

The dreadful image of the loved one haunts the mind of a survivor.  In some cases, he or she may have personally witnessed the violent death and, in other cases, may have reconstructed the final scene from the details available.  This vivid picturing in mind of death is accompanied by an overwhelming anxiety, numbness, or shock.  If this is the case, the survivor needs professional help.  This is a state of trauma that compounds grief and in order to heal, the survivor needs relief from such a haunting images.  In some cases, these images continue to haunt family members for months and years.  Treatment should be rendered immediately.  Thankfully, effective treatments are available to modify these traumatic images.  

Many family members who enter treatment are observed to suffer from an emotional disorder, notably, a panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, major depression, etc.  Grief and trauma therapy must accompany other interventions to deal with psychological disorders, if present.   

Due to the nature of the circumstances surrounding the death of a loved one, the legal and law enforcement agencies are invariably involved.  Family members not only have to cope with the loss, they are expected to provide accurate and precise information to these agencies in the middle of their confusion and emotional turmoil.  This initial criminal-judicial phase can be so involving and demanding that it often diverts family members from the essential task of grieving.  

I wish every community had an ongoing support group to provide immediate support to the family members of a victim of an unnatural death.  Immediate help and support is the key, here.  Such a support group, on one hand, can advise and assist family members in coping with the legal and financial procedures, and help with the grieving process, on the other.  The course of bereavement after an unnatural death creates special problems and demands which are different from those of normal grieving.  

Should a survivor who has experienced a similar tragedy in his or her life, want to start a support group for other survivors as a community service, I will be happy to assist them anyway I can.

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 



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