Sudden Death

Don’t hesitate to spend time with that friend or family member whose words and silence and comfort you trust.

Don’t hesitate to spend time with that friend or family member whose words and silence and comfort you trust.

The wife didn’t kiss her husband goodbye . . . since she was in a hurry to leave for the new job. Her commute was now into the city, twice as long as before. But the bigger salary meant their family would have more financial security. Her husband agreed to leave later for his job, first taking one child to daycare and the other to first grade. It would all work out.

Though she called her father every week . . . and knew his daily schedule better than he did—a morning walk to the nearby Starbucks for coffee and pastry; chatting for an hour or three with several of his army buddies; browsing for books at the library; tending to his garden; settling on the couch to play with his cats and (of course) to take a nap; then eating his Meals on Wheels for an early dinner—she hadn’t visited him since Christmas.

He discovered the shortcut without telling his parents . . . but they caught him on the third try. Later, though, they listened to his reasons and decided it was okay. But you should’ve asked us, they said. He nodded, smiled his perfect nine-year old smile, and said he was sorry. And meant it. So now he just shouted that he was going to his best friend’s house. He dashed across the lawn, climbed the low fence into the neighbor’s yard (they had given permission), and slipped through the gate into the alley. His backyard route was faster than walking around the long block. He could be at the home of his buddy, who had the newest PlayStation, in minutes.

The wife never made her first day of work. A semi with a driver asleep at wheel shoved her off the freeway. She was dead before the paramedics arrived at the accident scene.

Sudden death. No last kiss.

One of the pals from army days wondered why his friend wasn’t at Starbucks. He went to the apartment and found the body. A heart attack, the doctors later said. The army pal was also the one who called the daughter to tell her that her father died in his corner chair, with a stack of books from the library beside him.

Sudden death. No last visit.

The nine-year old, laser-focused on beating his best friend’s zombies in the video game, never saw or heard the delivery van when he entered the alley. Only local residents were allowed to drive in the alley, but the guy in the van saved time by avoiding the busy intersections at rush hour.

Sudden death. No last smile.

These three deaths are fiction. I made them up, but every day, everywhere in the world (including your community), there are car crashes, gunshots, heart attacks, strokes, tumbles from ladders, and so many other sudden deaths.

According to recent statistics, hospice will support about 44% of the people who are among the over 2,000,000+ annual deaths in the United States. Whether in hospice care for less than a day or longer than a year, the patient’s family will have a chance to say goodbye.

With sudden death, there is no chance for a final kiss, hug, or farewell. The person—a spouse, a parent, a child—wakes on a morning that is like any other day . . . but they never witness the sunset. The ones left behind, the ones grieving the unexpected death, will never see another sunrise or sunset in the same way.

We have excuses for a sudden death. It was God’s plan. It was fate. It was their time. We blame drivers who should’ve taken time to rest or drivers that were trying to save thirty seconds for a faster delivery. Or we have no one to blame, and only carry an awful mental picture of an elderly man, alone in an apartment, his cats mewing in the kitchen for their food.

Dealing with the sudden death of a loved one is radically different than having time to prepare for the dying and death.

In my work at hospice, most of my colleagues spend time with patients and families preparing for death. They are serving the slightly over 44% of American deaths that are anguished, but also have a few ticks of the clock or pages of the calendar from diagnosis to final breath.

However, in our grief support groups, we have people wrestling with a sudden death.

What can I say to them? What could you say to a friend whose spouse or parent or child just . . . died; that was there one morning, and gone before lunch?

As different as a sudden death is, there are similarities in all forms of grieving.

  • No one is ever completely prepared for death. Before death and after death are as different as life on earth and life on the moon.
  • We all want a last word or last hug. Even if we got one, we want another.
  • We live with guilt and regrets.
  • We will arrive at some point where the memories become treasures and don’t only feel like a knife piercing the soul.

There are two kinds of statements I would never say to a person who has experienced the sudden death of a loved one:

It was part of God’s plan. Regardless of your faith tradition, regardless of how you view a “supreme being,” no one knows the Holy’s plans about an individual’s life and death. No one.

God took your loved one because God needed or wanted them. First, read the above comment about knowing God’s plans. Second, as a person of Christian faith, at most I would share with another who is grieving that God received the one who has died . . . but never that God had taken them.

Always be careful with what you say to someone grieving a sudden death. Be tender, be silent, share time, be available, but please-please-please remember the oft-repeated obvious truth of having two ears and one mouth. Spend time listening, and no time giving advice that was never requested.

What is different for the one dealing with sudden death?

Truly, I am not an expert, but merely someone who cares deeply for others and tries to help without judging. But I suspect there are at least two things that will be more difficult for the person facing life after a sudden death: anger and forgiveness.

There may be anger at whatever or whoever caused the death. There may be anger at the one who died because, even under the most innocent circumstances, it is always possible to irrationally imagine he or she did “something” that contributed to their death. There will be anger at yourself because the last conversation was an argument or you should’ve taken the extra three seconds to kiss before you hurried away for work. The anger may be completely illogical, but that is normal when a sudden death bluntly destroys your present and future.

When someone is dying in hospice, there’s time to seek or receive forgiveness. Even if the loved one can’t communicate, we can grasp a hand or stroke an arm and tell them they are forgiven. Even if there is no response, being able to express your need for forgiveness can be healing. The ability to listen, medical experts say, is the last of the senses to go. Forgiveness openly expressed may be forgiveness heard. In sudden death, forgiveness becomes a one-way street. How can we receive or bequeath “I’m sorry” when the loved not only never has a chance to hear, but was dead in the split seconds of a stroke or accident across town or across the country?

I have—no surprise—no magic answers. Instead I can only offer meager, predictable suggestions.

Someone who has experienced a sudden death shouldn’t keep the anger, or anguish about forgiveness, or the host of other smoldering feelings, bottled up inside. Shakespeare was right in Macbeth: “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”

Give . . . sorrow . . . words. Which is simple, but voicing our pain can be so hard. Few can deal with these gaping wounds on their own. Consider joining a grief support group. Schedule time with a grief counselor. Don’t hesitate to spend time with that friend or family member whose words and silence and comfort you trust. If the understanding friend doesn’t live nearby, make a phone date (or even plan a trip to visit him or her).

I repeat: there’s no way to prepare for any death. But sudden death is a two-by-four slamming into the body and soul and creating a wound the size of the Grand Canyon. Don’t allow this “wound” to fester. Don’t pretend it will vanish. Talk. Share. Question. One relationship has ended terribly and unfairly in death. At the least, try a new relationship with a counselor* that may reveal a path toward healing for the next day.


*Seeing a grief counselor doesn’t come with a guarantee. Maybe one counselor is wrong for your needs, but that doesn’t mean the next one won’t be helpful. Loving your beloved required daily work and sacrifice and compromise. Don’t give up on addressing the needs of your grief.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. Tentatively…..A friend is better than bright gold etc. friends do best about these huge things, if they remember what they did and would do if when smaller things cropped up. Pastors (preachers , priest, padres ) but I am thinking about those who are primarily into tent construction can not do nothing, although that can be less harmful than any of several somethings. Tentmongers have a tendency to see credentialed folk as no different from anyone else , and thus t0 think that they are grief counselors but for5 a slip of paper. Bad mistake. Bad for the one(s) in grief and bad for the hubris ridden part timer. Training and experience can sometimes? occasionally? avoid some of the chasms and tsunamis that abound (here there be dragons). What friends and clergy with training wheels can do is be there when two, five and ten years down the line the grieving needs a few minutes or days of escape from the silence. just be there. all that being tentatively said i would give a lot be in class led by you.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Mickey. To “be there when two, five and ten years down the line” a person’s grief needs support is so, so important. No one needs to a professional to be a caring, non-judgmental friend for another.

      Take care!

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