Helping Your Clients Through Tragic and Sudden Loss

I have a question for you. Does the cause of death matter when dealing with your client families? Or do you treat them all the same? I started thinking about this after the recent loss of a family friend in a house explosion. Did I talk to the family and respond differently because of the way he died? I did. First, because of his age, he was 20 years old, and second because of the manner in which he died. I teach about sudden and tragic loss in my Death & Dying course, but thankfully I rarely have the opportunity to put it to use.

Here’s a few thinks I reminded myself that may be helpful to you as you serve those who have had a sudden and tragic loss.

1. Shock makes people speak very slowly, so be patient. Don’t finish the person’s sentence for them even though you think you know what they are going to say. Instead, let them complete their thought in full.

2. Don’t ask for details. When someone dies of cancer we know why they died. But when someone dies in an accident we want details. What happened? What went wrong? How did this happen? What are the police saying happened? On and on it goes. The grieving person will tell you what they want you to know, don’t be nosey. Unless you need details for the type of service you are providing it’s none of your business (or mine).

3. Speak softly. I have often talked with grieving people and can’t hear them. I have to really concentrate on what they are saying. I tend to talk loud (O.K., I don’t tend to, I talk really loud), so I remind myself to keep my volume at the level they are speaking to me at.

4. Don’t force yourself in the situation. If you have a service you can provide then by all means offer it, but don’t be pushy. Everyone is jumping to help when a tragedy occurs, but taking control isn’t necessary helpful. It can actually alienate you from the situation and the people you want to help.

5. Connect the dots. Often you will get just bits and pieces of information at a time and later have to put them altogether. Be careful doing this, making sure that the information is correct.

6.Be wary of the media. Don’t repeat what you are reading in the media. It may or may not be accurate, or give the entire picture of what happened.

7. Don’t make judgments about the event. Within hours of the house explosion mentioned above there were rumors of a meth lab as the cause all over the internet. That couldn’t be farther from the truth, these were good kids that died in the house fire; it truly was a tragic accident. BUT, had it been something else it wouldn’t have changed the fact that the families still needed help and compassion.

Here’s an additional website that I found on this topic with great information about how people dealing with sudden and tragic loss may be feeling including a feeling of helplessness, a sense of meaning, and blaming ourselves or others.