The moments surrounding a loved one’s death can stick with a person. If you were there, the memories can remain strong even if the details are foggy. For those who weren’t there, the absence of memory is often replaced by questions and wondering.
If grief is a forest, then the death is its impossibly dark and winding center. Many grieving people find themselves stuck in this center, unable to move far past it, while others have somehow made it to the less dense, but still challenging, outskirts and refuse to look back.
If my characterization sounds bleak, I guess it’s because this struggle is personal to me. Of course, I know many people have made peace with memories of their loved one’s death and they can look back without feeling fear, guilt, shame, or intense sadness. But I’m not one of those people. At least not yet.
Though I’ve explored just about everything about my grief, I seldom revisit the days surrounding my mother’s death. I haven’t faced what I know about them or made peace with what I never will know. And to be honest, I haven’t decided whether I should.
Is it worth the pain that looking back will cause? For me, probably. But this is a question every person must answer for themselves. If thoughts about your loved one’s death – or any other aspects of your grief – are haunting you, keeping you up at night, occupying your thoughts, showing up in your dreams, or pushing you towards harmful avoidance – then yes, it’s probably time to face them.
Though, “facing things” sounds a little too intense in my opinion. We always want people to be thoughtful and careful when taking on the tough stuff. We recommend you pace yourself and seek the support of friends, family members, a support group, or therapist.
There are many reasons why the events surrounding a loved one’s death might evoke thoughts and emotions related to fear, panic, pain, shame, guilt, and several other internal experiences. Below are just a few:
Revisiting of the details of your loved one’s death:
People may have distressing memories associated with the death. For example, if a loved one struggled with a long-term illness, a person may remember how upsetting it was to see them in pain at the end of their life.
If someone died from an accident that involved violence or harm to the person’s body, survivors who witnessed the event or saw the person afterward may look back on these memories and remember their fear, terror, and panic.
Even those who weren’t present for the death may remember where they were when they found out, what they were doing, and how they felt and responded.
It’s very important to note, revisiting events like these can bring up many distressing thoughts and emotions. When thinking about the death, some people may actually re-experience intense emotions like panic, terror, and fear. In an effort to not feel this way, the person may actively avoid anything that could bring up these memories which, in the long run, may cause them to cut themselves off from important people and places and to possibly live in a state of hyperarousal.
We have a few articles linked below related to this. However, if this sounds like something you’re experiencing, and if it’s making you very uncomfortable or you’ve lived with it for a while, we’d also recommend talking to a mental health professional to explore some of what you’re going through. Specifically, we recommend finding a therapist with experience in treating trauma.
- Grief After Traumatic Loss
- The Role of the Acute Stress Response in Grief
- Understanding Avoidance in Grief
- When Grief Goes From Just Plain Miserable to Problematic
Negative feelings about how you felt or behaved at the time of a loved one’s death:
Some specific examples include thoughts like…
- “I should have done CPR when I found the body”
- “Why didn’t I tell him to go to the ER right away?”
- “I just froze – how could I have done nothing?”
- “I should have been there.”
Looking back in hindsight, people may even feel guilty and ashamed about things that far preceded the death. Sadly, they may struggle with these things for a long time because, now that the loved one has died, they can no longer ask for forgiveness.
Many mourners struggle with unanswered questions about a loved one’s death. Questions like:
- How did they die?
- Was their death an accident or did someone cause it?
- Was it instant?
- Did they suffer?
- Were they afraid?
- Could this have been prevented?
- Who is to blame?
Just abstractly writing these questions feels upsetting, so I know living with them can be excruciating. Understandably, many people get caught up in asking these questions for a long, long time.
While some people do manage to find answers that bring them peace, many people don’t. Some of these questions can never be answered, and sometimes those that can, don’t have satisfying answers.
I searched a bit online for articles about how to find peace with unanswerable questions. Most of what I found addressed living with unknowns in the future, what psychologists call ‘intolerance of uncertainty”
Intolerance of uncertainty is a significant factor in many types of anxiety disorders. So I think it’s worth noting that living with unanswered questions about a loved one’s death can cause anxiety about the future because unknowns lead to an increased sense of unpredictability and a decreased sense of safety.
So now what?
It’s difficult to address this subject in a simple article because there are no easy answers. I can’t provide a list of bullet points telling you how to deal with one of the most significant and painful moments of your life.
The actual events of a loved one’s death are often like an open wound that isn’t easily healed. Though it’s the event that starts the dominos of grief falling, it’s often one of the last things we’re ready to explore.
What I can say is that if any of the above experiences are creating stuck points for you in your grief, then you may want to think about finding ways to explore those particular experiences. Things like writing, journaling, artistic expression, support groups, talking to a friend, and seeking therapy can help.
We’ve written a lot about coping with grief, so have a look around our site if you want to read more. We also have a free 10-day Coping with Grief from Home online course. Though we don’t specifically focus on this issue in the course, you can and it may introduce you to a few new coping tools.
We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.