Dealing with Sudden Death
May 30, 2007 2:26 PM   Subscribe

Processing and dealing with a sudden death.

My mother died suddenly and unexpectedly of a brain aneurysm a little over a week ago. She was 54. I'm 25. We were very close. I spent a week where I grew up making arrangements with my father (I'm an only child). The service and viewing were simple. My mother had a rough life, a history of abuse in her childhood, and, in many ways--even from her own mouth--I know she was "ready to go," even if the event was unexpected.

I've cried, but not in over a week. I gave my Mother's eulogy. In the time I was home, I went to favorite places of ours. My friends are endlessly sympathetic and supportive. My partner, who went through grieving a grandfather last fall, takes wonderful care of me. I have a beautiful new apartment, three cats, a job I enjoy which I returned to today. She knew I was successful and strong and taken care of. She also knew that I loved her, of that I have no doubt. I know, in my own personal faith, she is still with me.

Right now, I feel okay. So, as it is, I am waiting for the proverbial shit to hit the fan. I've read up on past AskMeFi questions--and know that there is really no difference, but the death was so unexpected; she wasn't ill--at least that we knew of. I know I have barely had time to process it. I know it's barely real to me yet.

I feel like I have all the "answers" to all the questions I can ask, but, my questions:

1) I know there are "no expectations," but right now I feel as if I am processing the logical aspect of her death, but nothing really emotional. I know and understand all the reasons why this is happening, and that there is no specific timeline, but what are steps I can take to prepare myself for the next few weeks, months, etc? (I am internalizing This like a mantra, yes, and have reread this thread several times.)
I tend to be of the, "Make everyone think I'm fine / don't show weakness / Debbie Downer," ilk, but have been intentionally reaching out for help, even if my emotions aren't connecting on all levels yet. This, of course, can break suddenly or push me to the level of being stubborn or whiny mess to my partner. Any ways to counteract besides being deliberate and self-conscious of my emotional landscape?

2) Any grief counseling ideas? I live in the Metro DC area, and am currently on temporary insurance and on a tight budget. Online communities? Websites? (This looks promising...)

3) Tips for taking care of myself physically. I am an emotional eater and was, before this, starting an eating/exercise regime. I had the thought, last week, that "Oh, maybe this will put me off my apetite." Heh. Not so much. I'm hoping for a, "treadmill every day, go get on treadmill when I have urge to eat," which will work at home, but I've got a sedentary office job (which will become more physical during the summer, but for now). I didn't bring any sweets with me to the office today, but then a woman hawking printing services came by and gave me a box of tiny chocolates. No good. This will be the hardest thing, physically, for me to overcome and deal with at this time.

The geek in me turns to MetaFilter for your suggestions and experiences. This will be my own road, I know it; I feel like I need some guidance while I'm still numb.
posted by atayah to Human Relations (19 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
sounds like you are as well-prepared as you could be. i think establishing an exercise routine will be helpful in the long run--if for no other reason than to clear your head for an hour.

i would suggest relaxing. i'm not a therapist, but i imagine it's like boarding up for a hurricane--you've done what you can, now you just have to trust that it'll be enough. i would say not to worry about whether or not you're grieving enough, or too much, or appropriately. it doesn't mean you didn't love her if you don't cry all the time, and it doesn't mean you're weak if you do.

a grief counselor is a great idea, and probably has better ideas than i do. deep grief can evolve into depression--the brain is so malleable--and they will help you catch it if it does.

good luck. i'm so sorry. you're doing a great job taking care of yourself, and i'm sure you will come out of this changed--of course--but okay.
posted by thinkingwoman at 2:52 PM on May 30, 2007

My husband died very unexpectedly in 2005. He was only 32. It took about three months before I started to come out of the "fog". I was lucky to find a great group of young widows online to bounce feelings and issues off of. I don't know if there might be something similar out there for you?
posted by moosedogtoo at 2:55 PM on May 30, 2007

Best answer: I'm so, so sorry.

You sound like you have a wonderfully thoughtful, solid foundation, and I think all my advice is in that previous thread, so I'll just keep it to: Try to stay willing to forgive yourself. I also fall into the strong-silent-don't-burden-others genre, and for me at least, part of that also tends to involve beating myself up when I do something wrong.

You can't do this wrong. There are things that you can do to stay as healthy as possible during this time (which you seem to be well aware of), but also give yourself permission to fuck them up. I put a lot of pressure on myself (and I still put a lot of pressure on myself) to "grieve right," which sometimes spiraled out into feeling like a bad person when I didn't have the energy to go to yoga class or cook a healthy dinner.

So with the eating, exercise, and emotional work: Do as much as you can, and don't beat yourself up for not doing any more than that. It's not a contest, or a set of rules to follow, or a To Do list. Your mother just died. That (presumably) happens once in your life, and so what you're going through is unique, and unpredictable, and there aren't any prizes for getting through it well. Honor that as much as you can, and be as forgiving and gentle with yourself as you can.
posted by occhiblu at 2:59 PM on May 30, 2007 [4 favorites]

I am so sorry for your loss. I lost my father about 7 years ago and had a tough time. True grief did not hit me until months later-- once I knew my sister and mother were okay. Everyone grieves differently...mine hit me later on and of course, in the worst places at the worst times (e.g. work!) But I made it through...I did see a counselor which helped some...helping me to understand the grieving process.

If you would like, contact me and we can talk-- I am also in the DC area. I had a good friend who lost her father 3 wks prior to mine and that helped a lot.

Be patient with yourself and above all, good to yourself. You will go through a range of emotions over the next year and no one can predict them or explain why certain emotions hit you when they did. The brain is funny with grief and depression...and is most likely now in shock.

Please, reach out if you want to talk further.
posted by psususe at 3:01 PM on May 30, 2007

I actually think you will do fine as well. The shit may NOT hit the fan. Just let things come as they will. Don't try to make anything happen, and don't stuff your feelings either.

Years ago, my best friend committed suicide. I knew he was having mental health issues, and was being treated, but I NEVER would have expected that. I was mainly numb. Although I grieved, I don't think I ever really cried, and I am pretty emotional. Yet, I cried like a baby when my pet parakeet died! You just never know how you will respond.

My condolences on your loss. Peace be with you.

posted by The Deej at 3:02 PM on May 30, 2007

Best answer: In general sudden losses can be very difficult, but don't necessarily assume that *your* experience of this sudden loss will look one way or another.

In general, you're right - there's a numbness that occurs, which is a good thing. In general, that numbness gets punctured by various experiences which can be fairly small events (such as having the impulse to talk to her about a newspaper article and re-realizing that she's gone) which then can bring up a mix of feelings.

You have to find a good balance of allowing yourself to feel those feelings without being overwhelmed by them. They might be uncomfortable and surprising (like anger at being left behind). In general, feel as much of them as you can, but don't hesitate to back away if you're starting to feel overwhelmed. People have many different ways they can back away from overwhelming feelings.

Don't be hard on yourself if things aren't proceeding as you like. It's good you're reaching out for help and letting your community know that you may need support in the future. Watch out for sudden dramatic impulses, like deciding that this is the perfect time for a trip around the world, or a great time to quit your job and find a new career. If possible, don't make any drastic decisions for a while.

It's great that you know about the potential danger that overeating poses for you. Try to be easy about compulsive habits like that (e.g., drinking, drugs, overeating, etc.), but also go easy on yourself if you "slip." Grieving your mom can be a hard road. No one needs to do it perfectly.

Sometimes I think it's really helpful for people to find ways to creatively memorialize the person who died. Whether that's a collage, or a poem, or a short story, or whatever. The art produced by these impulses can be very powerful and very healing.

Hospices often offer free or low cost grief classes and groups, as do churches and synagogues. Call around to them and don't hesitate to go for one session and not return if what goes on isn't to your liking. There are also many self-help books about grieving a parent. Next time you're in a big book store, just camp out in that section and page through books til you find one that speaks to you.
posted by jasper411 at 3:16 PM on May 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry for your loss. Oddly, my mother died in 1995 of a brain aneurysm at age 50. I was 23 at the time, and I can sympathize with what you're going through.

Like you, I stayed at home for a couple weeks to help my dad, who was briefly non-functioning. I felt conflicted about my own feelings, my lack of crying, my complicated, open-ended relationship with my mother, and all that. These worries lingered, but slowly dissipated over the next year or so, during which time I did my best to help my two sisters through their own issues with our mom's death. Eventually, I stopped thinking about it every waking minute, and accepted that this is something everyone will go through during their lives.

What I basically learned is the same thing I've relearned in the wake of every personal tragedy - that no matter how hopeless a situation seems at the moment, everything gets better with time. And actually, as sad as it was, the whole thing brought my family much, much closer together, especially my father and I. So there's that.

Don't worry about reaching out, as long as it's to people you know and trust. They understand what you're going through. Distant acquaintances, coworkers, random strangers, not so much.

Take care of yourself, and feel free to e-mail (it's in my profile) if you have specific questions or thoughts.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 3:24 PM on May 30, 2007

My condolences. A similar AskMe thread on a mother's death that might help.
posted by idb at 3:29 PM on May 30, 2007

Best answer: There is a stage, after a loss, when your soul is almost "shot full of novocaine". Your body knows how to protect you from things that are too intense, and losing a parent-especially when it was this sudden-is definitely an intense thing.

I don't know if it is so much "stuff hitting the fan" as it would be the novocaine starting to ease off. Pain and grief are different for everyone and none of us can really tell you what this next year is going to look like for you but I think there would be a consensus that there really are stages to go through. It sounds like you have plenty of good support, anyway.

I'm sorry for your loss, and I am so sorry that someone who is only twenty-five even has to deal with the loss of a parent.
posted by konolia at 3:31 PM on May 30, 2007

Trying to control your emotions and/or behavior will only make you suffer. Be vulnerable to someone you trust (hopefully that's your partner). Forgive yourself for your vulnerability. Unless you've got significant health problems already, allow yourself a few chocolates. You can lose the weight later. Now is not the time for rationally planned behavior. Let yourself feel, or not feel. Numbness and lack of emotion are just as much a part of grief as crying and flailing of fists.
posted by desjardins at 3:52 PM on May 30, 2007

Dear atayah, I'm so sorry for your loss.

You can't do this wrong.

This seems worth repeating. What I got from your very well-thought-through post was that you are trying really hard to grieve your mother "right."

Please remember that, whether you are numb inside, crying on the subway, exercising every day, or curled in the fetal position, you are, in fact, grieving perfectly. Perfectly for you. Perfectly for each moment.

A book that has been of great help to me: When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. She talks about being present to our own experience when circumstances seem unbearable.
posted by ottereroticist at 4:08 PM on May 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

sorry for your loss.

there is nothing you can do to prepare for the emotions of what's to come, the grief you will experience. it will get worse before it gets better. my advice is to deal with it, don't run from it. it's going to hurt like hell, and maybe for a long time. eventually the stars will shine bright again and you will be a better person for this. it all sounds trivial but that's been my experience. i wish you strength and peace.
posted by brandz at 6:40 PM on May 30, 2007

Best answer: My deepest condolences, atayah. Thank you for sharing your questions here. It has been said numerous times already in this thread, but you cannot grieve incorrectly. I mean, if you were suicidal or homicidal because of your grief, that would be a problem. But you're not. You're numb and that's perfectly ok.

Capital Hospice offers support groups, free of charge, to the public. Advanced registration is required. If you call, you will probably talk to a bereavement counselor who schedule you into a group. If you'd like, you may discuss your numbness with the counselor over the phone; they typically only charge for in person, 1 on 1 sessions. I mention this because perhaps a few minutes over the phone with a professional might ease your anxiety about the proverbial shit hitting the fan. [Full disclosure: I am a former hospice worker; I am not currently employed or volunteering at any hospice.]

As for your other questions, it sounds like you're aware of your trouble spots and you are aware of your behavior toward your partner. Your awareness is a strength and it is a gift you can give yourself and your partner. Don't try to be perfect, just be.

I will keep you in my thoughts. Email me if you need to. Peace to you.
posted by luminous phenomena at 7:08 PM on May 30, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone. I wish I could mark every single answer as best, both because I know they are and that, at the same time, there aren't any best answers. Many of you are right in saying that I am the type to want to "grieve right," and my mother and I were so close that I feel like, in a way, I should be beating my chest and wailing, even if I know she was, on many levels, ready to leave this plane of existence. I'm strong and confident about my ability to persevere, but at the same time, I'm wondering why people aren't calling to check up on me. All very normal things. I spend part of my day chanting to myself like a mantra, "Your mother's dead," as if to remind myself.

Gah. All of this today is that I think I need to be conscious about being conscious. I have a hard time reaching out; I'd rather have people come to me with their problems and keep mine inside (hello, emotional eating.) That has to change.
posted by atayah at 6:25 AM on May 31, 2007

Having been thru the whirlwind of activity that happens after someone's passing, your numbness is, I think, perfectly understandable and normal.

What will happen is that you will find it is the little things that break your numbness and they will cause you sadness. Maybe a dream, maybe a smell, maybe even a random image. But that's OK.

I don't know that I ever got over the numbness when my world got changed. I do know that I cry periodically (even now, three years later) not for the things we had, but for the things I didn't do that we could have had.

You sound strong and in touch with yourself, so I would echo what others say; don't deny your self your emotions. Eating can be more of a chore than anything, so your idea of exercise is a good one. Just don't use the exercise as an excuse to punish yourself for some transgression.

As a parent, my greatest concern for my children is that they know I love them, and wish the best for them. Your mother knew this. Take comfort in that. She will rest easy.

Think about your dad and his needs. You can take and give comfort by spending a little time with him talking about what your mom was like.

God bless you, and I sincerely hope you can find peace in the coming days ahead. My condolences to you and to your dad.
posted by fox_terrier_guy at 6:56 AM on May 31, 2007

Dear Atayah:

Like so many others here, I'm also very sorry to hear of your mom's passing. And I hope that you'll take our condolences, as meagre as they are, as a very small harbinger of the relief that you will, with time, feel.

But there's something that you wrote that struck me as kind of brilliant. I know that I'd never have come up with something this astute, especially in the month immediately after my dad's passing. You wrote this:

I think I need to be conscious about being conscious. I have a hard time reaching out; I'd rather have people come to me with their problems and keep mine inside (hello, emotional eating.) That has to change.

That resonated with me not only because it evidences a profound level of self-knowledge, but also because it reminds me of some of my own personality. The fact that you are aware enough of this to write it down is pretty amazing.

But please just do one thing, for yourself, with resepct to this change? Take it slowly. You don't have to do anything today but grieve, be numb, and give your dad as many hugs as you both can stand. And let your partner care for you now. And return that care when you can.

After all, it's not as if our grief ever goes away. We simply incorporate it, bit by bit, into our own lives, into our own subsequent joys and sorrows, and as such, we manage it. That's also good, even though it's a real drag to live through. In short, to answer those questions of yours I can (I know squat about counseling in D.C.): keep doing what you've been doing, and you will be okay again.

Just don't let your expectations guide your grief. Rather, let your grief inform your expectations, and remember that very few expectations, in almost all varieties of human life, actually end up leading to satisfactory results. Just being, especially right now, is the best thing to do.
posted by deejay jaydee at 7:59 AM on May 31, 2007

I am sorry for your loss as well.

Seeing what part of DC you live, when you want to get out in nature, I'd recommend walking through Brookside Gardens in Wheaton Regional Park. Getting outside has always helped me reconnect to the world when things have been tough.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 11:48 AM on May 31, 2007

I am so sorry. I can do no more than post this thread, full of sensible advice and concern from MeFiers when I went through a sudden bereavement.
posted by essexjan at 3:54 PM on May 31, 2007

I'm so sorry Ataya. Most of the advice I would suggest has already been given by others here, but I this might be helpful now, or later...

My father died in an accident 7 years ago. I was very close to him so of course it was devastating (but like many people in shock and early grief, I didn't always 'feel' it at the time).

Last year when a colleague lost her mother suddenly, I observed her doing something that I had done myself in the early-ish (ie weeks to months later) stages.

Basically, I lost a lot of boundaries around talking to people about my father's death. I sometimes found myself talking at length to people about it, even people I didn't know very well. It was like once the door was opened on the topic I couldn't stop, and I felt compelled to try and describe how I was dealing with it, even when I didn't understand myself what I was going through.

Of course this might not be the type of thing that you're likely to do, but if it happens, just take a step back and remember that just because people ask (and some will ask very bluntly - just as others will go to great pains to avoid the topic altogether), you don't have to tell them. The process of trying to articulate your feelings all the time can be exhausting - talking is great, of course - but it might be good to make sure you feel safe and talk with someone you know well and trust. Otherwise you can start to feel like you are recounting some anecdote for their morbid entertainment. It's a little like my understanding of something called 'narrative therapy' - which I have no serious knowledge of, but seems to say: the way you talk about something affects how you think and feel about it. And that can get rather confusing with something as complex and strange as grief.

I'm sure this doesn't happen to everyone - some people have huge trouble talking at all, even to their loved ones. But for me, being a fairly open person, talking about it too much with too many people sometimes added to my distress - at the very least, it was quite draining.

Also, at your age (I was 23 when my dad died) you're unlikely to know many people who've experienced sudden bereavement -- losing sometime to cancer, for example, is a very different experience (not necessarily easier or harder, but very different) and people who've lost people this way might not really 'get' what you're going through, at least initially. Two years ago I met someone whose father died in similar circumstances to mine and it was wonderful, sad and moving to talk with her, even though it was 5 years on by then for me.

Lastly - what several people have already said about there being 'no wrong way to grieve' is VERY true -- that is without doubt the most important thing to remember. Whatever you're doing or feeling as you go through it is (unless it's very destructive) just fine. Keep remembering that and treat yourself gently.
posted by 8k at 6:55 PM on May 31, 2007

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