Most of the losses in my life have been sudden, completely unanticipated. I'm losing my elderly parents in a very different way: My father suffers from vascular dementia, and he's unpredictable. I never know what he'll be from one day to the next: angry and aggressive, confused, depressed and crying, clingy, silly and flirtatous, or more lucid and more himself? I do know I'm losing him, and my mother. It is not easy, but I'm aware of the need to prepare myself in whatever way I can. I lost my brother and only sibling so suddenly it took my breath away. I saw him one day, apparently healthy, laughing and planning a party. Two days later, he died of an undiagnosed heart condition while raking leaves. I lost my husband so suddenly and terribly, I was thrown into hysterics, screaming over and over, unable to control the screams. These are not my only sudden losses, but they're the ones I can share.
A loss you do not anticipate jars you into a state of shock and numbness that can last for days, even weeks. In the case of my husband's death, it lasted for months. I felt as though I had ice water running through my veins. I could not cry. During the weeks immediately after his death I walked for many hours, day after day on a deserted beach and picked up broken shells, oddly preoccupied with the ways in which they were broken.
A sudden loss requires a sudden rallying of your friends. The Jewish faith has a tradition, sitting shiva, in which friends gather respectfully around a person who has suffered a loss. They let this person guide the interaction. There is no automatic reminiscing, rationalizing, philosophizing or advice-giving. Hopefully there is no nervous laughter. They bring food. They dress conservatively—no showing up in short shorts, plunging necklines or high heels. It isn't possible for a person who has suffered a sudden loss to look good, they understand, and cover the mirrors. This tradition asks friends to be simply, compassionately present.
But a sudden loss also requires friends to understand that the deepest part of the grief will come later, after the shock has worn off. Shiva-type friends are equally important then. This page is about helping a friend get through the shock of a sudden loss. I'll be adding material as I develop it, but please contact me with your own contributions, stories and suggestions. You can email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or use the form below.
Being a Friend When It Matters Most
Whether the loss is from death, a devastating fire, the breakup of a significant relationship, having suffered a permanent injury or been dealt a devastating diagnosis, an unexpected loss causes shock. Shock blunts emotions and makes carrying out the day-to-day tasks of living (feeding yourself and anyone who depends on you, organizing, keeping bills paid and people informed) difficult to carry out. Even people who are not directly affected can be so stunned by a sudden, devastating event that they abandon tact and sensitivity at the very time it is most needed. We're tempted to blurt questions and comments, mainly to regain a sense of control. Regardless of the cause, life for the person or people directly impacted has taken a radical turn for the worst. Try to put yourself in your friend's shoes: don't speak without thinking and try to meet some of the obvious needs, even without asking Is there anything I can do?