Whether the wound is fresh or it crops up years later the shock of a sudden death sticks with you in ways you cannot describe to someone who hasn’t lived through it. Dealing with grief after a sudden loss feels like an impossible task some days.
You have moments of peace that are shattered by the sudden realization that there’s a gaping hole in your life.
You’d feel sad if it weren’t for the guilt that you had the audacity to feel whole in even such a small moment.
All the rationalization in the world about what your loved one would want for you simply cannot make the pain (or the shame) disappear.
You know you need support but you don’t even know what to ask for.
Even if you did ask for help you’re sure you’d just feel yourself trying to make everyone else feel better.
So you isolate.
You do the bare minimum to function each day and have all of your excuses prepared to escape invitations and obligations. You just don’t want to admit that you’re rushing home to hide away in whatever coping mechanism brings you enough numbness to close out another day.
Dealing with grief after a sudden death seems insurmountable. I assure you, it isn’t. You’re on a survival mode as a default that is rooted in the denial/anger side of the grief process.
You just need some strategies to turn to when life feels bleak (even if that’s always).
1. Allow the pain. Turn off the suffering.
Pain is a natural part of the grieving process. You’re allowed to feel it. In fact, I encourage it. The natural default for most westerners is to try to shut off the pain with busy-ness, self-ridicule or, worse, numbing substances. Pain is like an over-tired toddler insisting on comfort and attention. The longer you try to ignore it the more insistent it gets, pushing peace further into the distance.
Attempt to deny your pain and you will surely succeed at perpetuating it. Listen to your pain. Salve your wounds. Treat it like the vulnerable innocent that it is. You’ll find peace come in longer stretches at a time as you learn to trust that you’ll take care of yourself.
Caveat: Feel your pain, do not become your pain. Diving too deeply into your injuries puts you at risk of making them so much a part of your identity that healing becomes extremely difficult. Don’t become so attached to your wounds that healing feels like an extraction of some part of your Self.
Suffering is a natural consequence of ignored pain. Whether you’re conscious of it or not the process of denying pain comes with a story about the pain itself. Here are just a few examples:
- Being distracted by my pain makes me weak-minded.
- Experiencing pain is a sign of fragility. I should be stronger than this.
- I should be over this by now, I’m such a loser.
As from the caveat above, if you make the pain an identifying factor in yourself you may believe, at some level, that healing invalidates the loss and your pain on some level. In order to honor the person you must carry the burden of your grief forever.
Aim to nurture yourself through pain and catch, then dissolve, the stories at the genesis of your suffering.
2. Exercise compassion with yourself
Stories at the core of suffering are usually phrased with obligatory language: I should be…, I have to…, I need to…. Listen to your self criticism. When you hear those phrases inspect the stories you’ve created. Discovery and Inspection are two critical steps to forgiving yourself and others because they’re the roots of the belief system that causes you to suffer.
Catch the self-criticism: “I should be over this by now.” “I need to move on.” “I have to find a way through this.”
Ask questions of those beliefs: “Is that true?” “Is that belief helping me move on?” “Does that self-imposed pressure speed up or hinder my progress?”
You’ll find that the undue pressure you put on yourself does more harm than good to your healing process. The truth is:
- You may never be over it completely but with conscious attention (like these practices) you will grow through the experience and find happiness again.
- You don’t “need to” or “have to” do anything you don’t want to. If you “want to” and “choose to,” however, then the obligation to be something you’re not is lifted. Now you can embrace the times you feel good (because you’ve chosen them) and exercise kindness with yourself when you don’t (because you’ve made room for your whole self, even the injured parts).
Simply notice your self-talk, accept that’s where you are and commit to moving forward. You’re reclaiming energy from a past you cannot change and using on your healing journey moving forward.
3. Understand the grieving process and allow for multiple iterations
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler defined the stages of grief in the 1970s.
Shock/Denial — Anger/Fear — Bargaining — Sadness/Depression — Acceptance
It’s important to note that, despite the implication of “stages,” grief is not actually a linear process. It’s perfectly normal to get stuck in between them, go backward or move through the entire spectrum repeatedly.
The “head down, just get through” survival mode is mainly rooted in Denial and is a common default reaction. The shock from sudden loss often locks people in this stage for a long time.
That is, until, Anger rears it’s hydra-esque head and you find that beneath the anger is really frustration and confusion. Beneath those emotions lies abandonment, betrayal, impatience and so on.
If you continue moving forward you make false milestones, “if I can just get through this project at work I’ll be fine.”
Until ultimately, your pain is more real than ever because none of achievements have absolved you of the loss itself.
Now you’re on your way to a new normal.
This cycle happens on a spiral. Your next adventure may trigger the grief anywhere within this process. That’s ok. Let that be ok. You are still healing, you’re just doing it at a higher level and in a fresh context. Moving through grief (rather than avoiding it) is an engaged, conscious and ongoing process.
4. Know that loneliness is normal, temporary and possibly useful.
I know you’ve heard all of the dealing with loneliness quotes but it bears repeating.
If you’re dealing with grief after a sudden death then you’re dealing with loneliness too.
- Loneliness is normal.
- It will not last forever.
- Now that you know you really need nurturing it can even be seen as an opportunity for self-care.
There are multiple ways to feel lonely, lonely in a crowd, lonely because no one else gets it, lonely because you’re alone when you don’t want to be, etc. None of them are “wrong.”
If you’ve made them “wrong” then you’ve simply found another suffering-promoting that can be dissolved when you’re ready. That realization is another way you can make it all useful, too.
5. Be open to reinvention
There is no going back to what you had. There is no replacing what you had either.
These inalienable truths mean, at some point, you’ll need a new normal. Accept that fact and a new normal will appear.
When you judge yourself (you’re only human) … repeat Step 2. Notice, accept and move forward.
What does reinventing yourself mean? In short, it means getting off of your default coping mechanisms and making conscious transitions. You look long and hard at your gifts, values and desires. Then you use them as the basis, and measure, of who you’re growing into.
The new you is operating on depleted resources for awhile. This mean you no longer have the bandwidth for everyone’s bullshit like you used to. Maybe you find yourself setting (and actually keeping) healthy boundaries. You notice you’re fine letting people go who simply aren’t a fit in your life anymore. Suddenly, people who are a fit show up and it’s easy to create time for them. You’ve built a strong foundation of your own values based on self-worth. Healthy choices flow now that you’ve built yourself back up with intentionality.
The key is to be intentional with your own behavior and allow others to receive you as you are … or not.
6. Give healing the time it needs AND keep testing the boundaries.
There’s no need or usefulness in rushing your healing process. That doesn’t mean that complacency serves your highest good, however. Push your boundaries a little. See what you can handle. Remember to judgement has no place in your process. If you find some go back to the second strategy.
If you go do something you used to love and it triggers you. Take a step back and decide what to do with that information.
If you have fun in social situations but you need a full day in bed to recover. No problem. Now you know you can get out there as long as it’s followed by some down time.
If you reach out for help and find you sit in silence. That’s ok. Give yourself credit for taking the step in the first place. Even a singular step counts as forward progress.
Like an injury that needs weight bearing physical therapy your must push the limits a little until you know where they are and can strengthen past them.
Dealing with grief after a sudden loss takes patience and kindness with yourself.
That’s the upshot. Even if you forget the minutiae of these strategies and remember that one, simple fact you will be on your way to recovery.
Be kind to yourself and wellness will follow.
It’s amazing how a few steps in a list can actually feel like a lot. Download The Squeeze right now to help you manage any anxiety that crops up. It’s my favorite go-to practice when my head spins and my first recommendation if you can’t shut your brain off at night. Lemme know what you think!
Triffany is a certified professional life coach who helps strong women tame their inner hot mess. When you’re ready to dive into an impactful, healing process start with Conscious Transitions: A Home Study Course in Grief & Growth.