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Grieving Sudden Loss: Bel Air Spiritual Director Sheds Light

After a series of fatal incidents in the county, Patch takes a look at the process involved in dealing with sudden or violent deaths.

Harford County has been impacted by fatal car accidents and tragic deaths in the first six months of 2012, leaving many of our friends and neighbors immersed in grief.

In February, in a car accident on Route 543. Last month, in Fallston. Just this week, County Council President on the family's Darlington farm.

These deaths are among at least 16 to take place on Harford County roadways this year. Add to these traffic fatalities the sudden , or at the hand of another person, and the toll continues to climb.

Nick McDonald, director of spiritual care with , confirmed what may seem to be the obvious: that in his experience, dealing with a sudden or violent death can be more unpredictable and difficult than dealing with other manners of death.

The grief surrounding sudden death can also be complicated by the circumstances, such as if illegal activity was involved. This can add a level of shame and make grieving more difficult.

McDonald said the accepted stages of grieving don't really apply to sudden death scenarios because the stages were devised under the assumption that there will be time to process that death is coming.

"The sudden death piece, there is no playbook for that," McDonald said.

With that being said, there are some things experts do know about dealing with sudden death.

"A really important part of sudden death is the notification process itself," McDonald said in a recent interview with Patch. "Just the way that’s done can make a big deal with the way grief is dealt with."

McDonald explained that over the years, law enforcement and medical staff have changed the way they notify families of a death. McDonald said people used to believe that it didn't matter how you broke the news of a death because people would be too stunned to remember it.

"What we’ve actually found out is they’re actually hyper alert," McDonald said.

McDonald said the news needs to be given directly to the family by an official, be it a doctor or member of law enforcement, and the word "death" along with the person's name have to be used to help the information sink in.

Outside of those basic factors, a supportive environment can be key to making the grieving process easier.

McDonald shared stories of two different death notifications at the same hospital. The first involved an officer in uniform approaching the family in the hospital halls, telling them of the death and leaving. McDonald said one family member screamed and 11 people were traumatized by the experience.

In contrast, about a year later a similar situation arose. This time, detectives spoke with hospital leadership, arranged for a member of the clergy to be present, brought the family into a separate room then shared the news. Personnel then stayed behind to answer any questions.

"It was a huge difference," McDonald said.

Seeing the body of a loved one is also an important part of the grieving process.

"It’s got to be pretty bad not to allow someone to view their loved one with support," McDonald said.

He explained the regret over not viewing a loved one can haunt a person and make dealing with the death more difficult.

"It seems like there’s a lot more grief work to do when you can’t be with the person you loved and lost," McDonald said.

By the same token, marking the space where a person has died plays a role in dealing with a sudden loss.

McDonald said memorials at the sites of fatal crashes happens because, "people were not there for that milestone at death as they were at birth."

Bereavement can also be made easier by planning. Knowing a loved one's wishes about artificially prolonging life, organ donation or that a person wanted a scholarship fund established in their name can take the pressure off the family.

"They have some direction," McDonald said, adding donating organs or setting up a fund, "sets the stage for something redemptive to happen."

He added this kind of planning is easier for those who are in later stages of life.

"It’s hard to have that conversation with your 25-year-old," McDonald said.

McDonald said Upper Chesapeake does not currently have a regular grief meeting scheduled, but recommended several resources including , and Mount Zion United Methodist Church, each of which hold grief groups.

is holding a session on dealing with grief on June 27. The event, entitiled "I Wasn't Ready to Say Goodbye," is slated to take place at 7:30 p.m. at 1543 Redfield Road in Bel Air.

Wings June 22, 2012 at 02:17 PM
I am going to get alot of crap for this but I am going to say it anyway. Ok I understand the need to want to set a flower or a balloon in the place where your loved one died. But some of these memorials are a bit out of hand. Example, a young woman died right at the foot of my friends property. He didn't mind the flowers and balloons at first. However months later he removed all of it to add a fence. Well he comes home one day and his brand new fence is covered with flowers and stapled pictures of this girl. Two years has passed and to this day he still battles this stuff being attached to his fence. Have respect for peoples property and stop making the home owner seem like a jerk for not wanting to keep it on their property.
JR June 22, 2012 at 03:08 PM
I always feel bad and say a little prayer when I see a memorial but if anyone wants to mark a spot of remembrance for me, please put it someplace I enjoyed going or where I enjoyed life, not where I lost my life.
jj johnson June 22, 2012 at 03:41 PM
Agree! If you feel the need to memorialize someone, don't you think it would be more appropriate to honor their life rather than their death. Memorializing their life would not be done at teh site of their death! In addition, if there is a need to memorialize the death, do it in the cemetary - that is what they are for.
Patti Gartrell - Mother of Jimmy Parfrey June 22, 2012 at 08:00 PM
Some advice from a mother that lost her son in a school bus accident.......refer those parents to The Compassionate Friends ASAP! ALL of the members of this group have lost children of all ages, from stillborn to adults! Many are harmed by well meaning friends and members of the clergy, and the words from Ministers have had devastating effects on grieving parents! Only someone that has lost their child can understand what we go through and most of us have been hurt by well meaning friends! All a friend or clergyman needs to say is I'm sorry - and don't put a GOD spin on your words.....it took me years to walk into a church again because well meaning people hurt me deeply. My son died in 1980 and I will never "get over it". We learn to live with the ache in our heart and we do go on in life. The Compassionate Friends is a national group.......they have an annual "Walk to Remember" and if parents cannot attend they can submit their child's name and someone will carry their child's name during that walk. Please encourage grieving parents to contact this group!
Diane Feeney June 22, 2012 at 09:23 PM
AMEN! Patti. I was going to suggest Compassionate Friends as well. Tha Harford County Chapter meets @ 7 p.m. on the 2nd Thursday of each month at St. Ignatius Church Parish Center. Plus, as a mother who lost her only child (2005), I fully agree with all you have said. Thank you! May I also suggest another Grief Resource? ... www.groww.org This is a site of chat rooms for specific types of loss (along with a general room that is open 24/7). ♥ My heart goes out too all who grieve. ♥
Deborah Shade June 22, 2012 at 11:33 PM
wings i couldn't agree more. I hate seeing all the memorials all over the side of the road. Save that stuff for the cemeteries. I personally hate it all. When my father passed away we donated his body to Hershey Medical Hospital for research. He couldn't and wouldn't have wanted to take his body to heaven. My memories of him in the garage singing away or sitting on his lap driving the car as a little child will last forever. No matter what happens in life no one can take that from me. And when I die don't remember a spot on the side of the road or whole in the ground remember me racing a car, the smile on my face riding my bike, dancing and baking in the kitchen, drinking a beer laughing with friends and whatever you do don't cry for me it's been a full fun life. Those that matter in life share that with me everyday and hopefully no one will wait till tomorrow I might not be here,
JR June 22, 2012 at 11:55 PM
Patti & Diane, I am so sorry for your loss. It is true, you NEVER get over the loss of a child. Having been through several deaths of family members as well as friends and friends family members, I have learned the best thing to do is say you are sorry and then just be there for the person grieving. If that person wants to talk, let them say whatever they want and just listen. Do not try to tell a story from your past or say anything like…well this is what happened to me. All they want to do is talk and have someone listen. Thank you for the on line support group. Having family members that will not attend grief counseling, I am going to pass that site on. Maybe it will help them. Again, I am so sorry for your loss.
Diane Feeney June 23, 2012 at 01:21 AM
Thank you JR for your caring and for your spot-on advice.
Diane Feeney June 23, 2012 at 01:38 AM
My apologies ~ The group that meets at St Ignatius is BPUSA: Bereaved Parents of the USA. Their website is www.bpbaltimore.bpchapter.org (Sorry.)
Grace June 23, 2012 at 01:46 AM
Excellent advice Patti. TCF is a wonderful support group. I didn't know they existed until almost a year after my son died and I honestly don't know how I made it through those long months. The support of my family and friends has been absolutely great but they just don't KNOW. It helps immeasurably to be with people who do.
Grace June 23, 2012 at 01:51 AM
Thanks for clearing that up. I am somewhat disappointed though. I would have loved going to another TCF meeting in addition to the one in Elkton.

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