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 verbally abusive, 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 literal 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 throws 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 (email@example.com) or use the form below.
Being a Friend When It Matters Most
The shock of a sudden loss doesn't apply just to the person most adversely affected, whether the loss is from death, the breakup of a significant relationship, having suffered a permanent injury or been dealt a devastating diagnosis. The shock of an unexpected event affects (to a relative degree) everyone associated, and shock is sometimes incompatible with tact and sensitivity. 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 changed in a serious, urgent, unanticipated way.