Coping with the death of a loved one is never easy, but a sudden and traumatic loss can raise special concerns for the family members and friends left behind. Aviation tragedies, combat, homicide and other types of violent deaths can be particularly difficult. These deaths are unexpected and survivors must grapple with the knowledge that their loved ones experienced trauma.
After my husband died in a military plane crash, I founded the non-profit organization Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) to assist bereaved military families. We have assisted more than 50,000 people since 1994. More than 80 percent of the families coming to TAPS for care and support have experienced a traumatic loss. Their loved ones died in combat, in aviation incidents, in training accidents, by homicide, by suicide, by terrorist act, or by some other unanticipated means. It takes on average 5-7 years for people grieving a traumatic loss to reach a "new normal." TAPS offers the following tips to help grieving families:
Realize that it is common to have physical and emotional reactions to a traumatic loss. Your body and emotions are reacting to an abnormal event. Grief, headaches, sleeplessness, heart palpitations, tightness in your chest, startling, shock, sadness, anger, disbelief, short term memory loss, feelings of helplessness or panic, depression, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, or other issues are common. See a medical provider if you feel you need assistance.
Turn off the news some of the time, if you can. Prolonged exposure to news reporting about the traumatic event can be detrimental for those who loved the people who died. If you need to get ongoing information, ask a family friend to keep you informed, or set a time of day when you will "check" on the news (so there are periods of time when you are not watching the news). Try to avoid watching 24/7 news coverage related to your loved one's death.
Ask for help from family and friends. Contact friends and relatives. Ask them to help you make phone calls, make travel arrangements, care for other family members (such as young children), or complete other tasks while you are in the process of searching for information about your loved one, making funeral arrangements, etc.
If you are asked to comment by the media, consider carefully how to respond. In a high profile incident, any information in the public domain or on social networking websites, may be used by the news media. You can choose what level of access you want to give the news media. Your choice to speak or not to speak with reporters can impact what is said and written about your loved one. Make decisions as a family about what information to share and photos to release. Realize that what you share now, may be printed and repeated for years to come. It may be best to select one person to share information on behalf of your family.
Reach out to people you trust for care and support. Try to spend time with family and friends that you trust in a private place. If your loved one died in an event that took the lives of others, you may find it helpful to connect with other bereaved families from the same event. Your faith community may be a source of support for you.
Try to sleep. Sleeplessness is a common problem among the recently bereaved. Even if you feel you cannot sleep, it is important to try to rest.
Pay special attention to the needs of children and teens. Young people are particularly vulnerable following a traumatic event. Try to maintain routines for children, offer support and understanding, and pay attention to their needs.
Don't feel like you have to "be strong" all the time. Feeling sad or frightened is normal. Crying does not mean you are weak or losing it. Talking about your feelings may help. You do not need to protect your relatives or friends by putting on a brave front. Showing your feelings may help others and you.
Respect individual expressions of grief. Some people may not cry openly, but will feel pain as deeply as others. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Within your family or circle of friends, allow each other the space and grace to express your grief as needed.
Do what helps you. Physical activities can help you. Try going for a walk or getting some exercise.
Consider writing in a journal, or write a note to your loved one who died. Writing down your feelings can help you to better understand the event and begin to come to terms with the loss of a loved one.
If you are comfortable doing so, participate in rituals related to the death of your loved one. Attend the funeral, memorial service, or interment, write a note to your loved one, or place an object near the grave site or interment location.
Avoid making major life decisions for at least 6-12 months after the death of your loved one. While many things have to be done in the immediate days after a person has died, try to delay making major decisions about your home, your job or your finances after a traumatic event.
Seek ways to honor your loved one. In lieu of funeral flowers, ask for donations to go to a particular charity that addresses an issue their loved one cared about. The helplessness and lack of control felt in the face of a trauma may cause feelings of guilt and hopelessness. Finding things that you can control, like your ability to help others, may help ease feelings of guilt.
Locate resources to assist you. There may be resources available to assist you through your workplace, the American Red Cross, or other sources. Bereavement counseling may be available through hospice, faith communities, grief centers, private therapists, or the Vet Centers (for families grieving active duty military casualties).