What To Say To Someone Dealing With A Traumatic Death

It was both coincidental and providential that the day I officially launched my counseling practice was also the anniversary of an event that helped shape my decision to become a counselor. On that February day 18 years ago, my husband and I woke to the news that our best couple friends had died.

Their deaths, of course, were unexpected. Their deaths were the kind most find difficult to talk about. Traumatic deaths. The official police investigation ruled it a murder-suicide; while an investigator believed it was likely an accidental death-suicide, there was not enough evidence to file it as such. My confusion and heartache remain, though time and processing (a lot of both) brought me to a place of acceptance and a healthy level of peace.

After all this time, it’s still not easy to talk about my friends and how they died. Often, any mention of their names begs the questions, “Where are they?”, followed by, “Oh. How did they die?” I’ve learned to discern when and where it feels safe to tell the story, and where I know it’s easier to answer vaguely, and move forward. I’ve also learned that other people’s reactions don’t get to change my truth about my friends, and who they were to me.

I discovered shortly following their deaths that talking about death, especially traumatic death, evoked awkward and sometimes hurtful reactions from others. I understand where the faces of horror, the silence, and the comments came from. Yet, it made my already breaking heart hurt even more.

  • “Obviously something was really wrong with them.”
  • “Did you know that things were this bad?”
  • “How come she never left him?”
  • “You think you know somebody.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “Does this make you think about your own mortality and the state of your soul?”
  • “God has a plan.”

I knew most of these responses were because people were caught off guard. They didn’t know what to say to something so awful, so unexpected, so painful. What can you really say? Most of us get uncomfortable with the messy reality of tragedy, and the brutal brokenness of humanity. Our brains naturally try to make sense out of reality, so our default is to try to put the pieces of the puzzle together or find a reason that will let our minds rest on a plausible cause and effect.

I’ve come to believe some things just don’t make sense and bad things happen. That’s it. There’s nothing else to justify or explain to fix it or make it better.

Megan Devine, a therapist and widow, writes, “We all want to feel loved and supported in our times of grief, and we all want to help those we love. The problem is that we’ve been taught the wrong way to do it…Our culture sees grief as a kind of malady; a terrifying, messy emotion that needs to be cleaned up and put behind us as soon as possible. As a result, we have outdated beliefs around how long grief should last and what it should look like. We see it as something to overcome, something to fix, rather than something to tend or support.” (2017, p. xvii).

Just as clearly, though, I can remember the words and actions that brought me comfort in those early days.

  • Hugs.
  • Sitting by me.
  • Out loud, simple prayers. “Help us, Lord.”  “Oh, Jesus, come.”
  • Being present in silence.
  • Bringing dinner and watching something predictable and emotionally safe on TV.
  • “I’m so sorry.”
  • “I don’t know what to say. There are no words.”
  • “I know how much you loved them.”
  • “I wish there was something to say to make it better.”
  • Little gifts and notes that said things like “we love you” and “thinking of you.”

There is nothing magical or mysterious here. These words and actions conveyed love, comfort, shared sorrow, and acknowledged the pain and the horror of reality. Nobody tried to make it better or explain what happened, because nobody could. I felt seen and less alone, and that is all I needed.

My friends’ deaths turned my world upside down and forever changed me. Looking back now, I see how it furthered my desire to work with people dealing with loss in all forms. It’s why my heart says, if I have a special interest in counseling, it’s this work: journeying with people in the painful and difficult.

References

Devine, Megan (2017). It’s ok that you’re not ok: Meeting grief and loss in a culture that doesn’t understand. Boulder, CO: Sounds True Publishing.

© Counseling with Sara, LLC – Sara Fender

Blog Post (revised) from www.sarafender.com, 3/11/2019

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