Understanding clients who suffer the loss of a loved one
The anguish of dealing with death
People talk about it being wrong to "wallow in grief" and use phrases like some of these:
- Tears won’t bring them back
- Time heals all wounds
- You had many good years together
- I know how you feel
- You should get a dog, their wonderful companions
- They died immediately and never knew what happened
- They are in a better place
- They are better off dead. It was a blessing in disguise
The truth is that most people are clueless about the impact of death and simply unable to comprehend the human suffering that is unleashed following such a death.
Death brings with it to the survivors powerful feelings of confusion, anger and anxiety which are mixed with depression and grief no matter how hard the person tries to not have these feelings. They invade your thoughts and your sleep. They are accompanied by feelings of shock and numbness: "It’s hard to believe." Being preoccupied with thoughts about the deceased are natural and common. So are symptoms of wrenching gut feelings, sighing, frequent crying and a feeling of being empty inside.
Survivors often experience these kinds of feelings and symptoms following a death of a loved one:
- Feelings of despair, fatigue, restlessness, irritability, anger and guilt are typical
- Feelings of being completely helpless, confused, out of control and unable to grasp what has happened.
- People sometimes felt the death wasn’t real and think that they will wake up and it would not be true.
- They have powerful feelings of helplessness and vulnerability
- They experience intense anxiety, sleep disturbance, flashbacks and concentration problems that may cause the survivor to question their own sanity
- Most people have a major problem with concentration and memory following the loss
- There may be significant problems maintaining a motivation for one’s work
- It is common to feel nothing matters very much including the job
- Some people have to force themselves to do work they used to do with ease and enjoy
- Survivors grieve the loss of their hopes and dreams for the future
- Death shatters the normality of their home life, family rituals, holidays and recreational pursuits.
- It impacts their relationship with their friends and family
- It impairs their sexual intimacy
In addition to all of that, people often question things they took for granted before such as:
- That the world is meaningful and operates according to principles of fairness and justice
- That one is safe and secure
- That the generally speaking people can be trusted
Instead, the death shakes these fundamental assumptions to their very core. The survivor cannot absorb what has happened because the loss doesn’t make sense. The tragedy demonstrates that life is capricious and unpredictable.
Among people who are religious, death can evoke a crisis of faith. Parents may be angry towards God for taking an innocent child or a loving parent or husband. It is difficult to maintain the view that God is a protector when there is a death because, as one survivor said: "Whenever I go to church I see my son’s casket."
Innocent comments can trigger feelings of grief and crying. Even the question "How many children do you have?" can cause anxiety. As one mother has said about that question: "I couldn’t say two because one was dead. I couldn’t say one because that would be an insult to my dead son. I didn’t want to say two, but one is dead."
Death Impacts Home Life
Leisure activities may suffer because now having to engage alone in what was a previously shared activity can result in a vivid memory of the one who is missing. Going back to favorite vacation place can be painful for the same reason. The family structure is often disrupted with serious consequences. The atmosphere at home may become gloomy and tense. Family members may become irritable and impatient. Individual family members who are struggling with their anguish may affect the others. Each member is troubled by their own pain and the awareness how much the other family member is suffering as well. The home contains endless reminders of the person who has died, even if the personal belongings have been removed. It is even not uncommon for family members to avoid the home or even move out.
The relationship between family members can suffer. A man may find he can succeed in maintaining control of his feelings only by distancing himself from his wife who is openly distressed. The woman may feel a powerful need to talk about the tragedy, but the man may not be able to deal with talking about it. Men and women deal with grief in different ways and this can cause conflicting children express their grief differently then adults and often manifest challenging behavior at a time when the parents are least able to deal with it:
- sleep problems
Children may ask difficult and painful questions and do so at times when the parent is least able to deal with them. When it involves a child death, parents usually become overly protective about safety and security of the children. It is common for parents to neglect their children or become irritable or harsh because of their own grief Extended family members may refuse to acknowledge or talk about the deceased which is distressing to the survivors as if the deceased never existed.
The Impact of Death is Long Lasting
There is a debate whether survivors of sudden loss ever really fully recover. In the case of a sudden and unexpected death, the survivors are left with all the things they would liked to have said to the deceased. All the unsaid things they wish they would have told them. The shock of a sudden event for which they had no opportunity to prepare. These kinds of deaths carry the long lasting symptoms that are different then an expected death.
Investigators point out that terms such as recovery or resolution are not applicable to death because they suggest a time of final closure which in reality never happens. In fact, the survivor becomes a changed person who realizes that things will never be the same.
People continue to experience painful upsurges of grief for many years following the death. These periods of intense distress are often triggered by reminders of the deceased:
- anniversaries, weddings
- family occasions
- baby showers
- or parties
All of these events may evoke a strong desire for the loved one’s presence. In the case of a dead child, they remind that their child will never graduate, go out on date etc. The impact of death continues to reverberate throughout the survivor’s life cycle. The wound doesn’t heal because you are living with it all the time. People feel dead inside – just going through the motions. They try to put up a good front. Their lives are turned upside down as they attempt to cope and there is no "quick fix" for the impact.
The next time a client consults you about the death of a loved one think about it from their perspective and be prepared to provide counseling or advice for counselors for them to meet with. When you talk to the jury about the loss do it through their eyes and feelings.