This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 10 table of contents.

Unexpected Deaths of Loved Ones

When a loved one suddenly and unexpectedly dies, there is no time to raise defenses. A common reaction is shocked denial: "It can't be!"

What is the common reaction to sudden and unexpected death of a loved one?

Shortly after the shooting of John Lennon, his wife, Yoko Ono, responded in a manner said to be classic in cases of sudden or violent death: "Tell me it isn't true."

"Every year thousands of new widows and widowers utter such words," said Edwin Schneidman, professor of thanatology at the University of California at Los Angeles. "Unexpected death of the beloved whether due to heart attack, assassination, suicide, automobile or airplane accident catches people with their psyches down." (Dullea, 1980, p.B16)

One student observed the power of denial when her father died unexpectedly.

About a year ago my father died of a heart attack. It was very unexpected as he had a positive check-up only a few days earlier...

I was in such a state of shock I couldn't cry, but my Mom really went to pieces. It was then that I realized I had to be strong to keep her going. For a while she was "fine" but the day of the funeral came and she just kept talking about my father being sick. Of course she was upset at the funeral-that was normal. But for two or three months, even, she only spoke of my father as being sick. We couldn't even mention my daddy's name or the words "heart attack" without her going to pieces.

Finally I got to the point where I was about crazy. I just sat her down and talked to her. I know I was being kind of harsh, but I had to get through to her. I told her that all I really had left of my daddy was all the good memories that my family had shared. I needed to talk about him to keep those good memories alive. I told her that denying the fact that he was really gone was not going to bring him back. After our talk she began to think about it. Now we can all talk about my father with fond memories. [Author's files]

What is the "conventional wisdom" about mourning?

After the initial shock, a psychological healing process is set in motion. But it takes time. The conventional wisdom is that bereavement (grief over death) lasts about two years after death of a spouse or loved one. One year is needed to absorb the reality of the person's death, another year to get back into normal social activities. But that is "conventional wisdom" and often does not apply to individual cases.


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