Sunday, June 10, 2012

Traumatic Loss: Needing to Know the Details

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[Reviewed and updated March 8, 2023]

A reader writes: Ten days ago, I was notified that my 16-year-old son had been killed. He was crushed under a freight train when he tried to follow two other boys who had jumped from a platform into an open carriage as the train passed the station. He was such a good kid—someone you’d like the first time you met him. Like the newspaper report said, this was his first real mistake, and he paid for it with his life. Now I’m going through a rollercoaster . . . No one will tell me how he actually died—what actually killed him—so I am visualizing all these things. The police told me he died at 12:35 AM, but his phone rang my daughter’s phone at 2:36 AM. They didn’t find him for 3 hours. There are pieces missing. I’m worried he was still alive—but it’s like a wall of silence. I got a letter from the coroner yesterday stating the inquest will be in 10 weeks. I know this sounds macabre, but I need to know before then. I can’t sleep—I haven’t slept since Monday. I can’t eat. I feel sick. I’m not sure where to go from here.

My response: I am terribly shocked and saddened to read of the death of your precious son and the horrifying circumstances of the accident that killed him. That your son “paid for his first real mistake with his life” is beyond understanding, and I cannot begin to imagine how devastating this loss must be for you.

I am struck by your statement that no one will tell you how your son actually died, that important details are missing, and that all your questions are being met with a “wall of silence.”

I want to assure you that your need to know the details of what happened to your son is not “macabre” at all— it is a normal and legitimate response to the unanticipated and violent manner in which your son was killed. The suddenness of your boy’s death, the way you were notified about the accident, the fact that you had no opportunity to get to your son to spend loving time with him before he died, or to see and touch and hold his body—all these factors are complicating the grief you are experiencing now.

Getting to one’s child as soon as possible after a fatal accident is extremely important to parents—even though they may encounter considerable resistance from law enforcement officials and others in allowing them to do so. Read the words of another mother who found herself in a similar position:
Permission was finally granted for me to see Timothy on the condition that I “didn’t do anything silly.” As they watched, I presumed that meant I was not to touch him or disturb anyone. But Timothy was my child; he had not ceased to be my child. (He had not suddenly become a corpse, a body or the deceased.) I desperately needed to hold him, to look at him, to see his wounds. I needed to comfort and cuddle him, to examine and inspect him, to try to understand and most of all to hold him. Yet, I had been told “not to do anything silly.” If I did, I feared my watchers would run in, constrain me and lead me away. So I betrayed my own instincts and my son by standing there and "not doing anything silly." Our society has lost touch with our most basic instincts – the instincts we share with other mammals. We marvel at a mother cat washing her kittens. We admire the protection an elephant gives her sick calf. We are tearful and sympathize when an animal refuses to leave its dead offspring, nuzzling him and willing him to live again. That is exactly what a mother’s human instinct tells her to do. If a mother is not able to examine, hold and nuzzle her dead child, she is being denied motherhood in its extreme (Awooner-Renner, S., “I Desperately Needed to See My Son,” British Medical Journal, 32, 356.)
Family members who aren’t given time with their loved one’s body at the scene of an accident or aren’t told the truth about the body tend to imagine images far more grotesque than reality, and they commonly fill in the blanks between the bits and pieces they pick up from the media, the coroner’s office, the police investigators and others. Given only minimal facts, their fantasies are often far worse than the reality of what actually happened.

When the time feels right to you and if you still feel a need to do so, I encourage you to find out exactly what happened to your son. There is nothing wrong with your wanting to seek out whoever was the final link to your dead son (the first officer on the scene, the paramedic who put him in the ambulance or the coroner who examined his body and determined the cause of death) and asking for details, including seeing whatever photographs were taken at the scene.

Much of the work of mourning involves remembering—but when remembering produces only traumatic images such as yours, the value of remembering is lost. Specialists who work with trauma survivors tell us that effective grief work cannot begin until the trauma is dealt with first. If you’re still experiencing anxiety, sleeplessness, intrusive images and nightmares, I want to encourage you to seek the help of a trauma specialist – a therapist who understands that trauma work must be done before you can begin the grief work that lies before you, as you come to terms with this horrible death of your son. Go to the Traumatic Loss page on my GriefHealing website for a list of suggested resources. And please know that as you travel the challenging path ahead, you are being held in gentle thought and prayer.

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  1. Grief seeks the truth no matter the manner of death but for accidental deaths (& other sudden and violent deaths) getting the facts is essential.

    When you're left to piece together bits of information that often don't hang together, you do imagine the worst of the worst. Not only that but without a factual account of what happened, you're left with not just one gruesome scenario but with all of the possible (and some impossible) scenarios. The truth is hard enough to deal with. To compound it with incomplete or inaccurate information is inhumane.

    In a situation like this, I would print out this article and take it to the authorities who are stonewalling you because it is vitally important to get the facts.

  2. Susan, you said it very well, and I agree with you completely. In situations like this, the truth is ALWAYS better than what we might imagine it to be. Thank you so much for your comment!♥


Your comments are welcome!