A guide to grief

Please note that the information below is a compilation of literature from Mothers Against Drunk Driving in USA and SADD. Please contact us for further information as we have specialized South African relevant booklets on grief as it relates to drink driving, death or injury of children, friends and grandparents.

Many people, and even counselors, do not  know that it is appropriate (because of the kind of traumatic stress victims or families of drunk driving crashes go through) to experience intense, long lasting trauma. This can last from 4 to 7 years. A sudden death is more difficult to cope with than an expected one. It is even more traumatic when one is violently killed. In drinking and driving accidents, the recklessness, senseless and negligent nature of the accident make it even more difficult to understand and accept.

Grief is an experience that is different for each person. When a loved one is lost, each person will experience their grief differently. The nature of one’s grief depends on a number of factors:

  • The way you learned to cope with the stress in your life before this tragedy.

  • The quality of the relationship you had with the person who was killed.

  • The circumstances under which your loved one was killed.

  • The success you have dealing with the systems with which you interact.

  • Your religious beliefs and ethnic customs.

  • The emotional support you have from your family and friends while grieving.

In the instance of an anticipated death, the griever knows ahead of time that death is approaching. This may cause them to act differently from the griever whose death of a loved on is unexpected. There are a number of stages that one may pass through when one learns of imminent death of a loved one. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are the stages through which most people pass when facing the anticipated death of a loved one (Kubler-Ross’s stages were described for the families of children who were dying of cancer or a terminal illness).

With unaccepted and violent deaths like murder, suicide or drunk driving the stages are completely different. Marton Bard and Dawn Sangrey regard the following to be important stages through which one may pass:

  1. Initial disorganization,
  2. Shock,
  3. Struggles/recoil, and
  4. Readjustment.

Dr Therese Rando suggests the following three stages:

  1. Avoidance,
  2. Confrontation, and
  3. Re-establishment. Nowhere does acceptance come in, as these deaths were preventable, unnecessary and mostly avoidable. The stages of grief are not firm, predictable or concrete; they are merely guidelines or trends. The stages of grief are descriptive, and not prescriptive. It is important to remember to be patient and gentle with yourself when passing through different phases of grief.

In the instance of a traumatic and unexpected death there is no time to say ‘Goodbye’, ‘I’m sorry’, or ‘I love you’. When people are seriously injured, they usually go into shock and don’t experience pain. The shock to the survivor, upon hearing the news of the death of a loved one, is often more terrifying than the experience of the loved one. You will not only miss the living presence of your loved one, but you may resent the fact that it was not respected by the killer. You may feel guilt at the fact that you weren’t able to protect the loved one, even though it was not possible. This is especially true of parents who have been conditioned to look after their children – so when a child is killed it is even more traumatic. Shock, numbness and rage are all normal reactions to witnessing a violent crash or accident.

A sudden or violent death is never timely. If your child is killed a part of you is lost too. It has been described as an amputation for the parent – they are alive but part of their body has been permanently removed. Your potential to nurture and protect is no longer present. It seems terribly wrong to loose a child, as one feels that they should die before their children. It seems very wrong when this pattern is reversed.

If your partner is killed you may have suddenly lost your best friend, your lover, your co-parent, your primary confidant. It can be devastating to be forced to make major decisions alone as you grieve and maintain the family at the same time.

If your parent is killed you deeply regret that the death was an undignified one. It feels wrong to not be able to say goodbye, or thank you.

If your brother or sister is killed you may feel guilty for being alive, even if it doesn’t make sense. It can be especially difficult to face the death of a sibling because it may remind one of their own mortality.

The senselessness of the death is another difficult component to deal with. It is easier to understand death when someone’s body wears out with age or disease, but with a sudden, traumatic death it is clearly someone’s fault. Knowing that your loved one’s death could have been prevented can be one of the most painful aspects of you grief.

With drunk driving deaths, there are criminal justice implications. One may feel frustrated and lost as one faces procedures that are foreign to themselves. In some countries the Criminal Justice System has effectively collapsed leading to the drunk driver being protected by the Law, and their actions seemingly condoned by society.

 Compassionate Friends

 A Bereavement Guide for families who have lost a loved one

Please contact SADD if you would like us to send you one of these pamphlets