In October 2000, my father died after struggling for two years with a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Prior to diagnosis, he was a robust, intelligent and loving man of 66 who thought he just had a bad case of eczema.
We who loved him watched him decline rapidly after diagnosis, suffering from painful, uncomfortable symptoms and the impact of medications that both helped and brought on new symptoms.
During the two years of his illness, he suffered immensely, coming close to death several times. But he rallied to take care of all the loose ends life and death bring, including more time for closure. Dad planned his funeral, wrote a genealogy book and shored up the finances. In short, he took care of all of us as he always had, leaving the work of his last two years as parting gifts.
When he did die, he gave us another gift. Dad allowed his family, pastor and beloved cat to bear witness to his final breaths. His was a beautiful death supported with such love by our pastor that it solidified my return to the faith of my childhood, and without which I doubt I would be in seminary.
Two and a half months prior to my father’s expected death, my aunt Linda lost her husband suddenly. I knew after my dad died that, while my emotions were raw and my head easily confused and overwhelmed, my grief was buffeted with the blessing of having time with my dying loved one—something my aunt and cousins didn’t have.
Sixteen years and two days after my uncle’s death, my husband of 21 years, Tony, accidentally drowned while on a family vacation. Tony’s death left our family stunned, and a people suffering from the impact of trauma and addictions were left without him as their therapist.
Many of my memories from that day contain fuzz and static. But I clearly remember wanting Aunt Linda as soon as possible because I knew she understood how to shepherd me through the early days of this very different grief.
How sudden grievers grieve
In Transforming Traumatic Grief: Six Steps to Move from Grief to Peace After the Sudden or Violent Death of a Loved One, traumatic grief expert Courtney Armstrong explains that sudden, unexpected and at times violent death sends its grievers quickly and with great force into a state of shock that is the brain’s beautiful mechanism for survival in times of fear and trauma.
Shock, which is protective at first, is referred to as a freezing reaction and is a precursor to “fight or flight.” This stage of grief may last for weeks, if not months, and develop into traumatic grief over time if proven interventions aren’t part of the healing journey.
Shock makes thinking difficult for the suddenly bereaved at a time when many decisions regarding funeral, burial and future fly quickly in their face. Add to these decisions the real possibilities and accompanying stress of funeral delay due to autopsy and/or police involvement. Sudden death is full of unforeseen obstacles requiring quick decisions of bereaved brains moving in slow motion.
Kathleen Gleeson, a licensed master social worker in Iowa City, Iowa, said, “The main difference between grieving a sudden loss versus an anticipated one is that in a sudden loss, the bereaved often has a trauma response. The shock … overwhelms the person’s ability to cope with the loss. Sometimes shock and numbness may last for many months, impairing the person’s memory and concentration.”
How to love suddenly well
Sudden death calls congregations to put love into action quickly.
Linda Lund, visitation pastor at House of Prayer Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Minn., lost her husband suddenly. “Pastors are ill-equipped to deal with this type of death [which means] congregations are also,” she said. “[Pastors and congregations] try very hard to make the pain go away [when] they can be much more helpful by walking beside the grieving person as he or she takes the journey.”
Here’s what walking alongside a suddenly bereaved person or family can look like:
Offer a gatekeeper. If the bereaved lack someone monitoring the phone calls, texts, emails and door ringers, find someone from the congregation to take on this role. Make sure it’s someone who knows how to stay in the background.
Visit less, unless invited. The first few weeks after a sudden death aren’t the time for everyone to visit. That’s what the visitation and funeral are for and why the sympathy card industry is alive and well. Appoint one person from the congregation besides the pastor to interface with the bereaved or their gatekeeper. This point person sets up a meal sign-up, makes the deliveries of supplies and food, and cues congregants as to whether visits are welcome or not.
Easter people embrace that after death there is life with all the saints for the deceased.
Care for the caregivers. Congregants need space to grieve or process sudden death too, but not with the bereaved family. Organize a time after or before worship with grief counselors or chaplains who can help the congregation process their feelings.
Listen and listen again. For Gracia Blanchard and the caring and wellness committee at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Iowa City, Iowa, support means listening above all else while avoiding sharing personal stories of grief with the bereaved.
Squash worn-out words. Common yet overused statements such as, “God has a plan” or “Everything happens for a reason,” are often heard by the suddenly bereaved as pain, not comfort. “Actions and behaviors that perpetuate grieving come from pastors and people who try to make you better or try to fix you by using words and Scripture that only make the hurting worse,” Lund said. Consider talking less with the suddenly bereaved and listening while sitting in discomfort more.
Develop a caring timeline. Caring for the suddenly bereaved is a yearlong commitment. Paperwork, carpool and handyman help are all possible needs of the bereaved family. Periodic invitations to social events also support this complicated healing process.
Support using experts. Time does not heal all wounds. Support those experiencing sudden loss in seeking professional counseling. Lowell Michelson, pastor of Lord of Life Lutheran Church, West Chester, Ohio, remembers seeking out professional help when he needed it: “When I found myself in … unexpected sorrow following a murder in the narthex of a [church] I was serving, I knew that I needed professional help to lead me, [my] family and the congregation through the valley of the shadow of death.”
Be Easter people. Easter people embrace that after death there is life with all the saints for the deceased. At the same time, Easter people can hold high life after death for those still living on earth by being mirrors of love, resilience and hope.
Walking beside and prepared. Sudden death occurs. It has been, is and will be part of living life together as Christians. Taking time to hear from people who have experienced sudden grief combined with expert advice helps pastors and congregations understand what actions are truly helpful, healing and loving, while minimizing the inevitable chaos that comes in the wake of sudden death. Preparation is a congregational gift worth cultivating ahead of time for the unexpected and suddenly bereaved.