Accidental death from auto accidents, fires, drugs, and murders are just a few of the unexpected ways people die every day. It is the element of the unexpected that makes these types of deaths difficult for friends and family. Police may be involved. An autopsy may be required by law and in extreme cases, a family member, friend, or acquaintance may be suspected of committing foul play. There may also be complicated legal issues. Survivors often feel incredibly guilty that they didn’t do enough to prevent the tragedy.
Due to the nature of accidental death, the survivors may be overwhelmed. Initial offers of help may not be accepted since they may not know where to start or what steps to take. It is also important to remember that many people may be willing to help after the death. Once the service has taken place and day-to-day activities resume, help may be needed more than ever. Remain available and willing to help.
Accidental Death: What NOT to do…
- Don’t vanish: Be available, loving, and non-judgemental. Don’t suggest what you would do or how you would feel. You are not the issue.
- Don’t try to take control: Your support is valued, but don’t try to take control of the situation. Loved ones need to retain control to help them work through grief. Avoid pressuring the family to clean out the deceased’s belongings since they need to do this in their own time.
- Don’t push for details: Let survivors share the details they feel comfortable sharing. Focus on the survivor’s needs and be a good listener.
- Don’t blame the victim: Suggesting drugs, drinking, the “wrong crowd” or other factors caused the death will not help the loved one with their grief.
- Don’t bring up other people’s losses: Let friends and family focus on their loss. What they are feeling is unique to them and comparisons are not helpful.
- Don’t say…
- “The way he/she lived, something was bound to happen.”
- “Did they find the person who did it?”
- “Forget about the trial and put it all behind you.”
- “If this happened to me, I couldn’t go on.”
- “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
Accidental Death: What to do…
- Refer to the deceased by name: Acknowledge the person who has died but focus on the life–not his/her death.
- Keep in touch with the bereaved: Many times friends and family shy away from the tragedy. Be there for them when they need you.
- Help make arrangements or do chores: Offering assistance is good but is often declined. Instead, proactively take care of a chore such as lawn care, cooking, cleaning, or transportation. Offer assistance with children or pets. Perform undesirable tasks such as retrieving personal effects after an autopsy if you are an appropriate person to do so.
- Encourage the family to plan a memorial: If it is appropriate, encourage the loved ones to plan a wake, funeral, or burial.
- Send flowers with a note or offer a donation to an appropriate charity or research organization: Thoughtful acknowledgments are almost always appreciated. Below are samples of the types of sentiments you can include.
- “It’s so tragic. I will always remember him/her.”
- “What you’re going through must be very difficult. Let me know how I can help.”
- “I’m saddened by your loss. We care and love you deeply.”
- Include siblings: If younger siblings are involved, let them ask questions and express their frustrations with the anger they see around them. Understand that their mischief, during and after services, may be an expression of what they are feeling. Assure them, over and over again, that the death was not their fault. Be sensitive that children may expect another death. Calm their fears.
- Give special attention where needed: Those close to the deceased, especially children, may need special attention. It’s wise to help them find appropriate therapy or a support group. The State’s Attorney’s office should have a victim’s assistance program to inform survivors of their rights and upcoming court dates, etc. and there are support groups and professionals in your area that can help.
The most important thing you can do to help someone who is grieving someone who died suddenly and unexpectedly is to be available, understanding, and non-judgemental. Let them know that you are thinking of them and that you are there for them. If they call, answer, if they need time alone, respect that.