A grief like no other: Resources for those grieving sudden death

A grief like no other: Surviving the violent or sudden death of someone you love

Kathleen O’Hara is a psychotherapist. Her son was murdered in 1999 and since then she has counselled thousands of bereaved families in the States. She now lives in London.

Below are the 7 stages of the process of grieving a sudden death she outlined in a workshop I did with her. The stages don’t necessarily unfold in this order, but these are the elements that she outlined. I also think the stages are relevant for other cases of trauma. She uses the metaphor of the ocean to illustrate the stages.

  1. Learning how to tell your story.

You need to find a way to tell your story, if you don’t tell your story, you don’t learn how to contain the energy it carries. It will rub up against you all your life.

Learn how to tailor the story into 2 or 3 sentences which you can put up as a fence when you don’t yet have trust in the person you are talking to. These 2 or 3 sentences function as a fence which says “Don’t come any closer unless I invite you in”. It’s a protection.

Most people in society don’t know how to be with grief and can say things that make it worse. As Kathleen put it, you need to learn how to tell your story without retraumatizing yourself. As the deeper you get into your story, the more painful, bewildering or confusing it is and most people aren’t equipped to deal with this.

On the other side of this is the acknowledgement that when sudden death happens, because of how ill-equipped our society is to deal with this, your world shrinks, you feel more isolated. You lose a lot of what you used to have. You may stop working, relationships and friendships may end.

Some of our stories are heavier than others but relative to ourselves, our story weighs heavily. As part of telling your story, therapy, counselling and support groups can all help. If therapy is needed, Kathleen recommends therapy by trauma specialists or bereavement counsellors who know about PTSD. (She said that some symptoms of PTSD are: insomnia, overwhelming guilt, intrusive thoughts, fearful reactions to daily life (eg fear when the phone rings at an unusual time).

Kathleen said that sudden death is different from for example cancer, as painful, as quick, or as slow and as tragic as that may be in its own right, but we were not sitting by the bedside when our loved one died.

2.Life preservers 

These are qualities Kathleen considers essential in the grieving journey:

Courage, hope, faith/spirituality, optimism, humour, patience, joy, compassion

Lists of qualities such as these are fine as long as they aren’t interpreted in a reductive way along the lines of ‘You need to be hopeful … you need to be courageous …’. It could tend to lead to the platitudes which simply aren’t helpful. Maybe it’s more a case that these qualities are part of the journey. They will happen and become part of you, you don’t even need to try to embody them, as long as you follow your own path of grief.

Certain things she said here made sense. For example, regarding patience; you may have a vague sense of ‘When is this pain or suffering going to be over?’ And there’s no answer to that question and maybe it never will, and this does take us into the realm of patience with the challenge we are faced with.

She quoted Viktor Frankl, the concentration camp survivor and creator of Logotherapy, who said that “Everything can be taken from a man  but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” I can see how this connects to courage.

About joy. After a while, a sense of joy can and does return periodically and the gift of the suffering is that we feel joy differently given our painful awareness of how fragile existence is.

On compassion, she said that the gift of the experience we have gone through is that we become able to be with another person who is suffering, we can ‘go into the dark’ and be fully present to that darkness the other person is experiencing.

We are in this paradoxical place of having complete knowledge of how bad things can be, but also there is a sense of freedom that there is nothing else to fear, we’ve seen the worst.

 3. Lighthouses in the harbour

  • Make a list of the people who you can rely on to be with you.
  • Make a list of the things and activities that truly support you eg swimming, walking in nature, drawing, writing.

4. Learning how to ride the waves

Kathleen began by talking metaphorically about this …. Saying you need to breathe, don’t stand rigid when the wave of grief comes or it’ll knock you over. Don’t hold the grief inside, let it wash over you.

Part of the trauma can lead you to block out experiences, feeling like you never had a son or daughter or partner or brother etc .

It might be that 18 months after a tragic loss you find yourself thinking, “I’m back at work, people see me going about my day, they’re thinking that I’m getting on with life, but really, I’m so lost, I don’t feel like I’ve got anywhere’.

Kathleen says that although it may be appropriate to not deal with the grief at work, once you return to work and you need to function and get through the day effectively in whatever you do, that’s not the case at home, when you need to allow the grief and not block it out. This includes creating a space for grief, when you intentionally sit with the grief. If you find yourself experiencing the following “I can stop the grief at work but I can’t start it at home.” It might be worth considering that you are actually exercising control and power over the grief at work.  It can conversely be possible to exercise control over it to allow and encourage grief to flow.

These following ideas about ritual are things that I have been mulling over as a practical way of letting the grief flow. It could be that you have a Saturday morning ‘ritual’ of 10 minutes to sit with your grief. And I’m reminded of what Grief worker, Stephen Jenkinson writes about ritual when he hears the objection “But I’m not feeling it right now.” “Of course you don’t feel it,” he says. “That’s what the ritual does, it brings you to the grief.” And he goes on to mention the professional mourners, the wailers and howlers who are often derided as a primitive cultural expression. These people help the grief to flow because it just doesn’t flow on its own in many instances.  And I also like this thought from Charles Eisenstein in his essay Mutiny of the Soul, “Rituals have the power to make conscious decisions real to the unconscious. They can be part of taking back one’s power.”

Returning to Kathleen, she encouraged people not to worry about doing it right or wrong. That you are doing OK. It’s extremely difficult going through this trauma and you’re in shock. Five years is the absolute minimum of time to deal with traumatic death, or ‘Loss accommodation’ as some psychologists call it, but probably the effects last a lifetime.

“I don’t mind feeling this pain” said one father. “It connects me to my child. Of course, I feel this pain. I love him so much”.

“Yes,” said Kathleen. “If you’re open to the reality of the pain, not seeking to push it away, you do better.”

One person said that they find it useful to watch films in which characters die, to get the grief flowing. I’m sure you’ve all felt choked up with tears when watching a sad film  … ‘tear-jerkers’ may have great value to us now, or in general, to get us connected to our mourning. I like to call it ‘Mourning with Movies’.

Then, continuing on Kathleen’s metaphor, once you’ve learnt to ride the waves, they take us out into the depths of the ocean.

5. Out in the depths

When you have accepted that this tragic death has happened, you know there’s no going back to life as it was before, but you have no idea where the ‘other side’ is. You are in the depths of the ocean.

Kathleen mentioned 3 things here:

Acceptance – using prayers or the sentence “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” to support you here.

Forgiveness – although she stressed that you must feel your anger before you have any hope of forgiveness. You can’t layer forgiveness over anger. It’s almost as if forgiveness is a by product of fully experiencing all the other emotions.  She mentioned Restorative justice here. That it can be very powerful and useful but anger needs to be part of the process, if it is part of your story.

Gratitude – using prayers or the sentence “Thank you for everything you’ve given me. Everything you have taken away and everything you have left.”

6.the Coral reef of creativity.  

  • As part of this phase, we may or may not come back out into the world, possibly talking more about the experience. The shame and stigma around these kinds of deaths is difficult to deal with and need to be addressed. Kathleen encourages the setting of boundaries when talking and if someone is talking in a way that isn’t working for us then you can say something like “I don’t think you do know what I feel” or “I can’t have this conversation now.” She added that therapeutic work is all about setting boundaries. So I guess that when we are doing our own therapeutic work by talking about our story, we are setting the boundaries that work for us.
  • the Coral reef is a metaphor for creativity that happens under the surface. After a while new beginnings begin to happen inside us. Kathleen also used the metaphor of driftwood. After a storm, there is driftwood, objects that have survived. You can look at what has survived in you. What qualities do you still have? What relationships are still standing?

7. The Comfort of the New World

In this ‘New World’ that we enter into, we do have a lifelong relationship in spirit with our loved one. We have lost the physical connection but not the spiritual one. You can be loyal to them. You don’t have to leave them behind. You can take them with you.



She does do counselling and victim support, and is based in London


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