The Three Waves of Shock After a Loss - and How to Survive Them
Shock is part of the landscape of loss. Sometimes it can act like a slow burn – and sometimes it hits you like a freight train. No matter whether a loss is a long time coming from age or illness, or if it happens suddenly – a phone call, an accident, a suicide – your life has changed in that moment and that is undeniable. I have found there to be three distinct phases of that shock and many ways of coping with adjustment.
The Immediate Wave – when a loss happens, those first minutes and hours of sudden reality can be terrible. If it is as quick as the ringing of your phone, it is the jolt of the news – the surprise and devastation – what the hell happened? As I wrote in my book, Putting Out the Fire, this is how I learned of the death of my mother. We had not spoken in over two years and all at once, she dropped dead of a heart attack. My uncle called me close to midnight and blurted it out in a few sentences (a very tough task) – and as I say in the book, after I hung up the phone, I let out a sound that only dying animals make. I had to call my boyfriend at the time, as well as my father, which I managed to get through. But while they were making their way to my apartment, I was in terrible shape. I was shaking uncontrollably and my extremities were cold – as a matter of fact, I could not feel my head, arms or legs. I was medically in shock and probably should have been in the ER – but I didn’t know that at the time.
Being aware that this can happen is very important, not just for you, but also for those around you. If you see a loved one in this state after such news, do not hesitate to get them medical attention, particularly if they are vomiting or fainting. I was very lucky that I did neither, but I probably could have used some oxygen….
This shock can also hit even if the loss was anticipated and there was a long illness. If your life has gotten wrapped up in caregiving and hospitals, having that suddenly stop is huge. It’s a massive shift in your day-to-day existence. So even knowing that it will happen may not make the shock any less.
The Memorial Wave – As the initial wave passes, next come the Doings: notifying loved ones, finding the will, planning a funeral and so many other moving pieces. It is the worst time possible to try and get anything done, when, as I often describe, you are feeling countless emotions at once, and yet you are completely numb in the exact same moment – and could you please make 500 really important decisions immediately? It is very hard, indeed, and there is no shame in acknowledging this.
Several things are every important, and I go into more detail on all of it in my book, but here are the basics:
• Get Help – I’ll say it again – get help. If you are overwhelmed (and who wouldn’t be), ask trusted family and friends to help with phone calls, errands, getting food, airport runs. They will want to feel useful and there may be a ton to do. • The other function of asking for help is that by helping you, your close ones can start their own grieving process. They are honoring the departed by supporting you. What a tremendous way to strengthen connections and build community. • Take excellent care of yourself – remember to eat, sleep, take your meds, stretch, drink water – if you are forgetting these things, assign someone to help you remember. This is vital to your coping with these raw hours and days. It will be much harder without rest and fuel. • You may have memory or coordination issues – this is normal, but do be careful. Things might drop and break, you may lose things easily or trail off in the middle of a thought. Again, let others help you with reminders and such. And if you feel unsafe driving, don’t!
Now I have mixed feeling about coping with pills or alcohol during this time – taking the edge off or helping you sleep is one thing. But the line between that and overindulging to try and make the pain go away can be very thin. The pain is the pain, and you WILL get through it. Having a shot to get through the funeral may be acceptable, but know your own tolerance levels and don’t get too close to the line. It is very easy to topple over. And if you are prone to addiction or are in recovery, do not tempt fate. Go to meetings, talk to your therapist and sponsor, do whatever it takes to stay grounded and smart.
The Aftermath Wave – then suddenly, the funeral is over, perhaps shiva is done, your fridge is full of leftovers and everyone has gone home. This is a whole new level of shock – the phone calls have stopped – the house is quiet – and the last several days and weeks may seem completely unreal. Did that really happen??? Yes, it did – and now a new wave hits you – that loved one is gone, no two ways about it. And even if that loss was many years in the making, it hits you all over again. The reality of the lack of their presence is a whole new blow of astonishment.
As difficult as the first two phases have been, the numbness at the beginning actually protects you in a way, so that you do not feel the full weight of loss all at once. But slowly that will wear off, and then we have to be ready for facing that reality in a more, well, REAL way.
There are new tasks at hand – the dispensation of the will, filing of paperwork, working with an attorney and possibly selling a home. There are all of their belongings sitting there staring at you. Make sure you prioritize – do things with deadlines first. Do not hesitate to consult an estates attorney, so as not to get tripped up with things like probate, taxes, property, etc. As for the rest – take it slow. Be very gentle with yourself. This is the meat of healing work, if you will. The months and years following a massive life change and how we adjust to it sets the stage for how we cope with other losses in the future. Each loss is different and deserves its own process and attention.
Again, Self-Care is so important. I know I say that a lot, but it is just true. Simply getting good food, water and rest will do you a world of good. Then get some fresh air and exercise – write in a journal, if that appeals to you – seek therapy or coaching to support you. Look up friends and reach out to some of those people who said to call them if you needed anything. Support groups can be good for community, but if all they do is talk about how hard it is and how depressed they are, that is not what you need. You need someone to work with you through the process of this particular loss.
If you are the friend who said you would help, pick up the phone and call. Don’t wait till they tell you what they need, as they may not know, and everyone needs different things. Offer to help with household chores or errands – ask them if they need to get out of the house, or to talk about anything other than the loss – some folks just get tired of focusing on it. Make suggestions, not demands, and being willing to hear “no”.
The goal is to work on building your New Normal that includes the reality of that person not being in your life anymore. It ain’t a walk in the park, I know. But in the final analysis, you are still here. You are still living and loving, growing, doing and being. Your life is different, to be sure. It always is. But life has gone on to the next phase. And you are okay.
Take things one minute at a time and one choice at a time. You have the rest of your life ahead of you. Yes, you do. Now you can create something new to be proud of and move forward. Eventually, calm waters will return - you deserve that.