Bereavement due to traumatic death

Telling others, and other people's reactions

Telling others about a death is always difficult. After a sudden traumatic death this is even more difficult. Decisions have to be made about who to tell face-to-face, who can be told by phone and who might prefer a letter. Some people explained how they told other family members, friends and colleagues about what had happened and they recalled how they had reacted. Carole was particularly concerned about her elderly father, who was devastated when her son was murdered. Others talked about the reactions of various family members.
Cynthia told a few people about her daughter’s death at once, but had a card printed, with a recent picture of her daughter, to send to everyone on her Christmas card list. Pat’s friends set up a network and informed each other about her son’s death. She was thankful that she did not have to tell them all herself. It took Dolores several months to tell some of her friends about her son’s traumatic death.
When others heard the bad news some rushed to offer support. Cynthia said that her friends were kind and took her out to meals. However, some people said that others did not always react in a way that seemed ‘appropriate’. Some stayed away, or seemed embarrassed or avoided the subject. Elizabeth said that after her daughter died some people just disappeared. She thinks that they were ‘needy’ people and that after Marni died she could not support them as she had done in the past.
Some people made tactless remarks when they heard the news. For example, when Karen’s mother died in a fire people asked her why her mother didn’t have a smoke detector, which upset her because her mother did have a smoke detector.
At first Martin was overwhelmed by friends who were offering sympathy and support. He received over 400 cards and had many phone calls. However, 2 years after the accident only one friend was still regularly in touch.
David's feelings were very mixed after his son was fatally stabbed. Sometimes he wanted to be alone and at other times he was glad to have family and friends in the house. At work he wanted to talk about his son, but when someone expressed his sorrow about the murder he ‘went ballistic’. He found it hard to explain his mixed emotions.
Sarah said that when she told people about her husband’s death she wanted others to listen, and to acknowledge what she was saying, but she found that other people often tried to express sympathy by telling her about their own bereavement or divorce, which she felt was inappropriate. Rosemary also found she was hearing about others people’s experiences when she talked about her son’s death.
Many people said that only those who had lost someone through a traumatic death or who had lost a child could really understand what they were going through. Other people’s reactions sometimes seemed insensitive. People expected them to ‘get over’ the death of a relative and get back to normal much too quickly. William felt that a neighbour expected him to feel better only two weeks after his daughter died, which he thought was insensitive. Pat was likewise shocked to find that some people expected her son’s funeral somehow to bring ‘closure’. In the weeks that followed Pat felt she was expected to repress her anger and sadness and behave as though nothing had happened.
Dorothy’s son, Mark, died in an explosion at work. She found it hard to listen to others talking about mundane things such as the price of electricity when she was mourning her son and fighting for justice. She cannot sympathise with other people’s minor problems and as a result has lost some friends.
Although some people prefer to talk to close friends or family members about their bereavement, others may find it helpful to talk to a professional counsellor or someone outside the immediate family (see ‘Professional counselling’ and ‘Support received from charities’ and ‘Religion and spirituality’).

Last reviewed May 2019.


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