I have recently become acquainted with several bereaved parents, and it brought to mind that besides the trauma of losing a child or loved one, there are altogether additional and different circumstances that can lead to more trauma. For example, if a death is sudden and unexpected, like accident, suicide or homicide, the shock of the death seems even more pronounced because there wasn’t time to prepare oneself. In the case of a terminally ill person who dies, while there may sometimes be time to prepare for the death, the trauma of taking care of and watching the death over the course of months, weeks or even days is excruciating. When it comes to homicide, there are so many factors that may come into play: rage towards the perpetrator, unforgiveness, desire for revenge or justice, frustration over how the case is handled, to name a few. With suicide, the list seems to be longer: obsessing over anything that could have been done to prevent the death, feelings of blame, shame, worry over the afterlife of the deceased, unresolved issues. This, of course, is not to mention if the deceased loved one is found by a family member. Viewing a loved one after death, especially if the circumstances are horrific and unexpected is extremely traumatic in and of itself and may be difficult for that family member to forget that image of their loved one instead of a pleasant memory with them. Then there are instances where the whereabouts of the loved one is unknown for a long period of time. When the body is finally found, the surviving family members have to endure the dashing of their hopes, however slim, that their loved one may still be alive. And the grieving over the loss of their family member has been prolonged and even delayed. Other circumstances can also come into play that add to the intensity of the experience of the death of a loved one, like losing an only child or the death of a loved one when there is considerable unresolved conflict.
I think about these things because I want to educate myself and others about the multi-faceted experience of grief and death. There is no pat way to approach someone who has lost a loved one. My experience is to first just be completely present and as empathetic as possible. Another thing that helps me is for someone to be curious about my experience and to hold space for me to express myself without fear of making the other uncomfortable. Even though I have lost a child, I still have no idea what it feels like to experience some of the things others have experienced. I keep an open heart and mind to learn with love and compassion. So when I approach someone, I try not to come with an attitude of knowing exactly what the other person is experiencing. I can use my experience to help me to be empathetic, but I feel it’s important for me to listen and be fully present so that the other can be seen and heard. Interacting in this way requires a lot of intuition and love.
Sometimes I am overwhelmed and need someone to direct me into healthy thinking and guidance. Sometimes it just hurts. There is no way around it. And all I need is empathy and presence. I don’t need to be fixed or convinced there’s good coming out of this pain. I already know this. I just need to go through it. If I stuff it, it will come out eventually in some way. At times like this it helps for someone to simply be present and as empathetic as possible. This gives me the space to get through the pain, settle myself down and proceed with my journey. It occurs to me that it is helpful if I can express when I want advice and guidance and when I just need a shoulder to cry on. That, of course, requires me to be honest and present with my own needs as well. I can’t expect people to know what I need or don’t need. I suppose this is all part of the process of growth and evolution. Either way, expressing these thoughts helps me to clarify what my needs are and to elucidate others on how they can best help those suffering loss through death.
— Denise Roussel