June 24, 2024

Grief’s Unwelcome Arrival: How to Support Loved Ones through Tragedy & Unexpected Loss.


View this post on Instagram


{*Did you know you can write on Elephant? Here’s how—big changes: How to Write & Make Money or at least Be of Benefit on Elephant. ~ Waylon}


She never calls me at 1:58 p.m. on weekdays.

I was zipping around like I usually do, feeling rushed for my next appointment, when I heard my cell phone ring. I looked down at the device in my hand, and I froze in the spot where I stood.

My sister’s name was on the screen. She doesn’t call me at this time of day, ever.

I stood still and watched it ring two or three times before I answered. My body didn’t know how to work. It was the moment I understood my life was somehow changing forever.

Instantly, I knew.

The sound of her voice is a sound I will never forget. Something awful had happened to somebody we love.

We all can remember precisely what we were doing and where we were standing when news that will change the trajectory of our lives hits us, forever altering the reality we know.

I will remember this day like I remember walking across the street in London, England, noticing everyone on the other side intently staring at something in a shop window, frozen and transfixed, watching an airplane hit one of the Twin Towers.

They all looked mesmerized or hypnotized, perhaps. When I reached the crowd, I also stood without moving, totally transfixed. Together, we silently watched the TV screens through the window, nobody speaking a word.

We all knew then too. Life as we knew it would be drastically different.

Initially, I did not want to answer the phone because I knew the call meant our family had changed forever. Someone was dead. Our mom had recently had a stroke and a blood clot that burst behind her eye, and her health was precarious. With trepidation, the whole family was on “strike watch” as we hoped for the best but prepared for the worst.

I steadied myself, took a big breath, and prepared to hear the news that my mom had passed away, but what happened next was far more shocking and defied my expectations about the world I was living in.

Instead of answering the phone with my usual greeting, I hesitantly squeaked, “Is everything okay?” The sound of her voice told me everything I already knew somewhere deep in my soul.

Things were not okay. They were not going to be okay for a very long time.

It wasn’t our mom; it was her husband. I could only stutter “What” repeatedly like a broken record until my brain caught up to the present day, comprehending my new reality. This was not the plan.

As I listened to the words she choked on, telling me her partner of almost 23 years had died in a fatal car accident, I began packing like a ninja. As I cradled the phone between my ear and my shoulder, my hands shook, and my voice cracked; with a furious intensity but a calm, focused energy, I moved quickly around the house, throwing items I needed into a bag.

My mind shifted into one singular thought: now is not the time to cry and shriek. My sister and my nephews need me. Do not lose it, Holly. Take action. Get ready. An earthquake has hit. You are needed.

No longer was I repeating the word “what”; it was now “I’m coming.”

All my animals danced around me, confused and afraid, with a concerned look in their eye. What just happened to Mum? Why is she moving so quickly, and why did her energy change so drastically?

They looked distraught. Animals aren’t dumb. They, too, know when something has occurred. When we hurt, they hurt. As I paced, they paced.

I called my partner and said only three words, “Come home now.” And he instantly knew.

I tried to soothe my sister, but we all know there is no soothing in the moments we learn our partner is gone, especially when we were robbed and not given a chance to say goodbye. Events outside the trajectory of human experience are harder to comprehend. This was not the natural order of things. Trauma is never easy to deal with. Trauma we don’t see coming is always 10 times harder.

“I’m coming. I’m on my way. I will be there in three and a half hours. You’re not alone. I am already packing.”

The first week after my brother-in-law’s passing was a blur. Those first seven days felt like 48 hours.

Like all deaths, when the news hits, there is shock, concern, panic, and distress in the community surrounding the bereaved. Perhaps the distress is higher in a small town like the one we grew up in because everyone knows everyone else. When a tragedy befalls a person, it befalls a community.

The initial stages of loss are the horrendous, sharp, intense parts of grief. The pain is so intense it feels lethal; just trying to get air in between gut-wrenching sobs feels like a milestone. The thought of continuing on feels impossible.

Humans are hardwired for compassion and connection. We are relational-based creatures, so we feel we must do something when a tragedy hits. The doing comes from a place of caring. Everyone wants to be there and offer something to help somehow, but typically the bereaved are still stuck in shock and panic. At this point, everything is about survival: eat, sleep, drink water, and make it through the day.

Working as a psychotherapist has prepared me for horrible moments like this. Not everyone knows what to do in these types of situations and not everyone knows how to do hard things. Sometimes, it is far easier to run from what is uncomfortable than it is to quietly sit beside someone, bearing witness to their pain. I can’t take it away from you, but I can sit quietly beside you while you face the darkest hours of your life.

My years in private practice have taught me some valuable lessons about grief, trauma, tragedy, and shocking loss. These lessons I give away freely in the hopes that they might one day lessen someone’s suffering.

Initially, the energy of grief is so intense it is palpable and capable of inducing vomit. It is hard to eat. It is hard to sleep. It is hard to walk. It is hard to do anything. You are certain you will die. This is when everyone runs to help and offer support, love, and food. People want to do something.

However, my practice as a therapist showed me that when times get really tough, it is often when the onslaught of supporters has returned to their own lives. The shock of the tragedy will fade for others, but not those directly involved.

In my own traumas, what I have found the hardest is when everything goes back to normal for everyone else, but I am still stuck in trauma mode, watching the world around me running like nothing ever happened, and all I can think about is all that happened.

Just because someone is not talking about something does not mean they are not thinking about it—nearly every second of the day.

Seeing everyone being normal when a new normal still has not been found makes one feel like they will be broken forever. The goblins living in the mind whisper that things will never get better. This is when isolation, loneliness, lost-ness, and despair come knocking on the door, asking to come in and stay for a while. When these visitors are in the house, it is not a fun party.

This is where you have real power; this is when you do something. You have the power to kick them out. You can evict darkness and that is pretty f*cking cool.

The return of “normal” can feel crushing. When people are broken, they stay broken for a while. Big bones don’t heal quickly like little bones do; breaking a hip is not the same severity of pain as breaking a pinky finger.

Watching everyone return to their life, happy, and back to the daily grind makes the loss feel even more gigantic because their person is not there, nor are they ready to be happy, and their “normal” isn’t coming back—and they know it. They have to create a new normal, and that takes time.

Like all bereaved, they have to now get through what is known as the “year of firsts.”

This includes first birthdays, first special anniversaries, first holidays, first Christmas, first Mother’s and Father’s Day, and the first anniversary of the date of death. All of those anniversaries are awful. Extra love helps make them easier to swallow.

If you love someone and they have faced a tragedy, don’t hold them in your heart for a few weeks; hold them in your heart for at least a year. Knowing one is remembered is everything.

Here are some really great ideas and ways to love someone paddling through the unimaginable, trying to stay afloat:

>> Put the date of the tragedy in your phone with a yearly reminder on repeat. Text them one, two, or even three years out on the day, letting them know you are holding them in your heart.

>> Reach out on milestones, anniversaries, and holidays. I promise you, they will be struggling, likely silently.

>> Instead of bringing food immediately, bring it in a month, mail gift cards for restaurants, or bring food that can be frozen to eat in the future.

>> Rather than taking direction, take initiative. Don’t say, “I’m here if you need anything,” but do say, “I’d like to bring dinner for you on Thursday and leave it on your doorstep if that’s okay.”

>> Wait for the storm to calm and then ask for a walk at three months, six months, and so on. They will really appreciate knowing that they have not been forgotten about.

Trauma can be blinding. When the bright lights of tragedy have faded, the darkness will come. This is our universe’s nature and the cycle that rules our day. Darkness follows the light, and light follows the darkness.

This is when and where you have real transformative power.

If you want to be of service, offer to serve when others have moved on, no longer transfixed by the tragedy. These quiet moments, when the rest of the world sleeps, are when our need for connection is most acute.


{Please consider Boosting our authors’ articles in their first week to help them win Elephant’s Ecosystem so they can get paid and write more.}

Leave a Thoughtful Comment

Read 0 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Holly Smee  |  Contribution: 9,520

author: Holly Smee

Image: _minimalista/Instagram

Editor: Elyane Youssef

Relephant Reads:

See relevant Elephant Video