Sudden Versus Anticipated Death

by Peggy Sweeney

Peggy Sweeney
Peggy Sweeney

No matter how our loved one died, we grieve. However, the manner in which the death happens will influence our grieving process. For instance, a heart attack, stroke, or a motor vehicle accident are examples of sudden death. Shock and disbelieve are often our first reactions. When I received a phone call from a family friend that my dad had a heart attack and was dead, I immediately hung up the phone and dialed my parents’ home because I knew the person who had called must have been mistaken. Sadly, they were not.

When death occurs as the result of a long-term illness or injury, the levels of shock and disbelief may be less intense than they are with a sudden death, because we have known for some time of the imminent death. Nevertheless, when someone we love is slowly dying because of cancer, heart disease, a brain injury, or Alzheimer’s disease, we may find ourselves surprised when his or her death occurs. This is not an abnormal response, but rather a belief that as long as there is life there is hope.

On the other hand, some people find it very difficult to watch a family member or close friend debilitated or suffering a slow, painful death. They may silently pray for a peaceful death; an end to the torment. During the many months that my mother struggled to live, I found myself on what seemed like an endless roller coaster ride. Up one minute when a surgery or medication appeared to correct a problem or ease her pain, then tossed down into the depths of despair when efforts to make her well and pain-free failed. Watching someone you love very much die is never easy. Although mom’s death has been very painful to cope with, it was a blessing for her.

What impact do these two types of death (sudden or anticipated) have on us as we begin to heal our grief? Disbelief, shock, denial, and a numbing of our senses may often accompany a sudden death. Some people may be angry, consumed with guilt, or lash out at those around them. Sudden death does not allow us to say a final goodbye or tell the person how much we loved them. We think it is too late to ask for forgiveness or to make amends for hurtful things we may have said or done in the past.

Following a very traumatic death (the death of a child, suicide, homicide, etc.), our brain and our body acknowledge the fact that we are facing something that is overwhelming to cope with. Many people will experience a sense of being on automatic pilot. They will do simple tasks seemingly without any thought.

As a mortician, I witnessed this many times. A family member would come to the funeral home to make arrangements. Without any outward sign of emotion—almost robotically—they would answer my questions and offer detailed information concerning their wishes for the funeral and burial. You may think that this indifferent behavior is a sign that this person is coping well or emotionally unscathed by their loved one’s death. This is not true at all. It is merely nature’s coping mechanism. Eventually, the pain of grief descends unannounced and unmercifully.

Although we grieve and have many of the same feelings and emotions as someone who is coping with the sudden death of a family member or special friend, anticipated death gives us the opportunity to complete some of our grief work before our loved one dies. Unless your loved one is in denial of their imminent death, you both have the opportunity to share your innermost feelings and emotions, right wrongs from the past, and make amends. Many people who are dying not only want to do this, but find it beneficial as they near life’s end. Furthermore, they may have had to relinquish control over many things in their life due to their particular long-term illness or injury: an active lifestyle, driving, cooking their favorite meals, or entertaining guests in their home. Allowing them to take part in an active healing experience such as this will bring both of you comfort and a sense of peace.

Some people may want to be sure that their affairs are in order. Planning their funeral arrangements or getting legal issues resolved for surviving family members are of great concern to them. Do not hesitate to assist them should they ask for help. The rewards you will gain in the long run will be well worth your efforts now.

We will grieve in spite of the manner in which our loved ones die. Death is death. Grief is grief. Pain is pain. We cannot go back in time and undo events that have happened or take back words that were said in anger or haste. We must accept our humanness. We must learn to forgive and ask for forgiveness. We must love unconditionally. You never know when death will touch your life.

About the Author: Peggy Sweeney is a bereavement educator and the president of The Sweeney Alliance. She has developed and taught countless workshops about coping with grief and trauma, including How to Understand Grief Seminars (HUGS) and the Grieving Behind the Badge program for emergency response professionals. She has reached out to her community through The Compassionate Friends, a support group for bereaved parents, and Comfort and Conversation for bereaved adults and teens. She has written numerous award-winning articles and is the editor of the Journeys Through Grief Newsletters. Peggy is currently a member of the Comfort (TX) Volunteer Fire Department and a former mortician and EMT-B. You may contact Peggy at peggy@sweeneyalliance.org