Coping with Sudden Death

By Donna Kane, MA, CT

All of us live our lives with some fundamental assumptions.  We do this to organize our world and create predictability in our daily lives.  We go to work and assume our car will be where we parked it last.  We leave work and assume our house will be in the same condition it was in when we left for work.  Knowing that objects continue to exist when they cannot be sensed in any way is called object permanence.

As adults we develop a similar concept with regard to the people in our lives.  We assume they will be with us even if we do not have constant contact with them.   We may put off a phone call or delay a visit because we can do it at a more convenient time.  We assume there will be another day.  This is a perfectly reasonable assumption.  How would we be able to function if we assumed that every contact with someone we care about could be our last?   How stressful would that be?   What incentive would we have to develop and nurture relationships if we were always concerned that the person might be gone at any time.  That is not a world that I would want to live in.

The truth is people do leave us.  They may die unexpectedly.  When I was 21, John Lennon was killed.  He was not a friend or a family member, but his death rocked my world.  My sense of order was shaken.   I could not make sense of how people can leave this earth without warning.  Up until his death my only experience with loss was the “expected” kind- a loved one up in age with health problems.   Lennon’s death was disorienting and scary.  It was the first time I was affected by a sudden, unexpected death.

Recently our community has been faced with several deaths, all sudden and unexpected.  The death of Barbara Gradet, the first Executive Director of JCS, has left me with that same sense of disbelief and sadness- I felt violated.  My assumptions were tested.  My world was shaken.   She was supposed to be enjoying spending time with her family.   She had not been in an accident.  She was not ill.   I assumed (many of us assumed) she was living and loving life.  Imagining what her family must be going through was just awful.  Seeing the grief and the pain of my colleagues was adding exponentially to my own disbelief and sadness.   There was a tear in the fabric of what made up our lives.

How does a community grieve and reconcile the sudden death of a friend, colleague or loved one?  Here are some strategies that may help:

Seek out others who knew and loved the person who died.  Talking with family, friends and co-workers of the person who died is a way to work through memories, sadness, and shock with others who understand the depth of what has been lost.  At JCS we had a community meeting where people were able to speak freely about what Barbara meant to them and what they learned from her.  We recorded the meeting so her 2 grandchildren will be able to learn about all the amazing things their grandmother accomplished and see how important and loved she was by so many people.

Embrace gratitude.  Grief counselors understand that focusing on what you have gained from your relationship will make it easier to get past the “why” and moved towards acceptance.  This was clearly the case at JCS.  Almost everyone who spoke at our meeting focused on what they learned from Barbara and the impact she had on their lives.

Continue the person’s legacy.   Whatever was near and dear to your friend or colleague, jump in and keep it going.  If they loved animals, volunteer at a shelter or make an annual contribution in their honor.

Soothe yourself:  Whether you grieve instrumentally (keeping busy) or intuitively (emotionally) or both, allow yourself to do what feels right for you.  If your grief is exhausting, allow yourself to nap.   After hearing about Barbara’s sudden death, I bought 2 flats of flowers and spent time planting long after the sun had set.

Take comfort in linking objects.  Any item that you can immediately associate with the person who died is a linking object.  Joan Cohen, the current Executive Director of JCS, has many items in her office from Barbara.  Joan commented that “having something that is given to you by a person has more significant meaning after they have died.  I certainly treasure Barbara’s gifts even more now.”  Indeed, part of Barbara’s legacy is her generosity and there are linking objects throughout both of our agency buildings.

As a community we come together in good times and bad times.  We need to remain healthy and engaged to support one another.  If you find yourself unable to reconcile a loss and are overwhelmed with guilt, anger or sadness JCS can help.  Call us at 410-466-9200 or visit JCSbalt.org/grief.

Donna Kane


Donna Kane, MA, CT is a Grief Clinician at Jewish Community Services

Jewish Community Services (JCS) provides programs and services for people of all ages and backgrounds, helping them achieve their goals, enhance their wellbeing, and maximize their independence.

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