Sudden Bereavement: Experience and Reflection

The following is a presentation written around 1982 as a part of Robert’s theological study, and was written with a view to being of assistance to those wanting to help the bereaved. Robert suffered the loss of Susannah at the age of three so writes with a deep understanding of what bereavement is, and what is most helpful in this time:

There is usually no area of Christian ministry where a brother or sister in Christ feels more inadequate than in the area of grief and loss. And yet, when some of the factors involved in the loss of a loved one are understood, there is no deeper ministry we are able to exercise than that which can bring comfort and strength to those in need.

The urgency of this need is highlighted in a recent article by Dr. Granger Westberg, who wrote, ‘The grief syndrome is now seen to be the most common root cause for hospitalization of perhaps one third of all patients who enter hospital.’

Tolstoy’s short story: ‘The Death of Ivan Illych’, is a brilliant anticipation of the shallow understanding of death we come across daily whether in conversation, counselling or in bizarre death notices in the daily papers. Tolstoy anticipated the spiritual shallowness which would evolve from a progressively technological nineteenth Century.

Ivan’s experience of his encroaching death awakened him to a new reality – in himself and in others.

‘There was no deceiving himself: something new, terrible, and more important than anything before in his life, was taking place within him, of which only he was aware. Those about him did not understand, or would not understand it, but thought everything was going on in the world as usual.’

He detest the falsity and unreality he perceives in those around him: ‘What tormented Ivan Illych most, was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying, but was simply ill, and that he only needed to keep quiet and undergo a treatment, and then something very good would result. He, however, knew that do what they would, nothing would come out of it, only still more agonizing suffering and death. The deception tortured him – their not wishing to admit what they all knew and what he knew, but wanting to lie to him concerning his terrible condition, and wishing him and forcing him to participate in that lie. Those lies – lies enacted over him on the eve of his death and their curtains, their sturgeon for dinner – were a terrible agony for Ivan Illych. And strangely enough, many times when they were going through their antics, he had been within a hairbreadth to call out to them: ‘Stop lying, you know and I know that I’m dying.’

Even after his death: ‘Each one though or felt, ‘He’s dead but I’m alive.’ But the more intimate of Ivan Illych’s acquaintances, his so-called friends could not help thinking also, that they would now have to fulfil the very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying a visit of condolence to the widow.’

In our loss we have been fortunate to be surrounded more by depth than falsity, realism more than protestations against reality.

It has been the experience of my wife and myself that our own loss of our 3 and a half year old daughter, Susannah, fell into 3 fairly distinct categories:

  1. The experience of loss
  2. Reaction to the loss
  3. Resolution

While sharing with you the content of these three spheres it will be suggested that there are certain ways in which concerned people can help the bereaved.

  1. The Experience of Loss

Our trauma stemmed from the death of our daughter from a virus infection, known as epiglotitis. The virus cause the epiglottis (in the throat) to swell and so cut off the air supply. Susannah, eventually died of a convulsion, the brain being starved of oxygen.


The experience of her loss was especially traumatic for the reason that we had no idea that she was suffering from anything which was lethal. This false sense of security was abetted through our having spoken by phone to a doctor in the morning, then having had her examined by the doctor in the afternoon. Later we rang the hospital  in the evening to be told again that this was probably the normal course for an upper respitory infection to take. Even when I took Susi back to the hospital later that night, we thought that she may have had some asthmatic croupish condition which could be fairly easily remedied. In fact, around midnight I came home for a while to collect a toy for Susi and assure Janis that evetyhing looked like being okay (Janis stayed at home to care for our other 5 month old daughter).

When I returned to the hospital I was abruptly ushered into the staff room and told I couldn’t see her and that the doctor was doing his best. ‘What has happened?’ I asked frantically. ‘She has had a convulsion I was told. I knew from the way the nurse spoke that she knew what the outcome was going to be. The news that a road ambulance from Adelaide had been sent for was little comfort (Waikerie is about 100 miles north east of Adelaide).

From that time on, the experience of loss began to set in. I was fortunate enough (later) to have a much loved Christian brother come to the hospital in the early hours of the morning to share something of the burden.

However, its first effect was a terrible sense of inevitability, that we humans are only on the fringe of life, that we really have such a slender hold on life, and that time is a callous impersonal process that makes man think of himself as victim.

To be in a room isolated from the life-saving procedures going on is one of the loneliest experiences one can undergo. The sense that life was gradually slipping away from her little body and that there was nothing more than could be done about it now is an experience of greatest pain.

My own reaction to it was to begin pleading with God, even to bargain with him, if he would only save her life. At such a time, prayer is not what you do, it is what you rest in as a result of the practice of a prayer life to that point it carries you.

The experience of loss makes us think erratically; there is a state of shock, of emotion over-riding rationality, of disorientation, of self-blame and an inability to communicate clearly.

A hospital compounds the state of disorientation with people running to and fro, diving into cupboards for tablets, there are unclear phone messages, annoyed ambulance drivers and some few staff who give the impression, actual or imagine, that they couldn’t really care whatever the outcome may be.

The final experience of loss came when a doctor casually announced that there was not much that can be done about these things and in fact she gave out quite a while ago. I was in such a state of inner turmoil that it took me a moment to realise that he was telling me Susi was dead.

I rushed into the ward, and there, in nothing but a singlet, Susi lay, eyes half shut, a picture of pale lifeless beauty.

2. Reaction to Loss

a) Unbelievability

There is an overwhelming sense that this is all a part of a macabre dream; that one is going to awake and find the ugly reality gone and just a faint hint left of the dreamt experience. We could not believe that a healthy little girl of Friday could be a dead one by Sunday. Everything seems so avoidable as we look back and see if only we had done this or seen this sign or taken this action.

In a death for which one had had little time to prepare, all the unavoidable possibilities leading up to a death preoccupy the consciousness. This means there is a good deal of guilt in the mind of the bereaved which they are soon only too ready to vocalise to the right person. For there is a real need to communicate with others even at such a time, provided they indicate their credibility. One of the most demanding exercises that can confront a Christian at this time is the practice of forgiveness. For unknowingly most people say things they, no doubt, believe will be helpful but which are negative and unhelpful. For they are not aware of the crucial distinction between reaction and resolution.

Suggestions aimed at helping the bereaved to resolve their loss have no place in the Reaction Phase.

People came to see us who immediately offered resolution comments that were quite out of place. The reaction state of mind and the shock of loss preclude any openness to resolutions until it is the right time.

There is only one way that a person can react helpfully to another person experiencing the reaction phase of loss, and that is by identification. A person who speaks of the resolution situation instead of the reaction situation has not identified deeply with what has happened. In fact there can even be a certain callousness, even an emotional laziness in people not taking seriously the reaction state and going straight into the resolution state. A person earns the right to help with the resolution to the degree they identify with the reaction phase; otherwise the bereaved feel that they are not understood and cannot accept help with the resolution of grief from that person.

How can a person identify helpfully?

The deepest form of identification is in my view not to be found in words, but in silence. Words can be used effectively only in comprehensible situations; the more awesome and incomprehensible the situation, the less adequate are words. Sometimes only tears and silence are deep enough. Only they assure the bereaved of a deep concern. If you would minister effectively to the bereaved at such a time you must communicate the fact that their loss has been your loss too.

If words are to be spoken, then if the bereaved are able, encourage them to tell you the story of what happened – they will usually want to and need to go through the story hundreds of times before resolution can really begin. The visitor is wise to adjudge the state of shock of the bereaved so as to be sensitive to placing demands upon them which they are unable to cope with, such as seeking from them resolution comments that are premature and which haven’t yet been experienced.

To identify deeply is costly; it cannot be forced if it is not there, it cannot be created, it can only unfold as the natural outcome of the relationship that existed before the death. You should know yourself well at this point – you will naturally feel a need to respond to the loss and you will feel guilt if you fail to do so; but analyse the nature of your response to the loss. If that person meant much to you, go and weep and love and share; if they didn’t, don’t try and force what is not there, that will be no good for anyone. There is no healing identification if we roll up to people and try to be chatty and cheerful, life as usual, as though nothing has really happened. And yet we must scrupulously resolve to be our true selves. And so if we cannot in all sincerity identify deeply with the bereaved, a short note might be best; or a call, say a month or so after the loss. The first two weeks after the death people are constantly supportive, but for most another month later, it is naturally not recollected with as much intensity. The called who comes 2-3-6 months later to talk about a grief sincerely and concernedly can be as valuable as any person who called with their intense identification in the first fortnight.

3. Resolution

Thus far I have not mentioned the role of God in this situation, and that is quite deliberate; for the less said about God, heaven and strength during the reaction phase the better. The consolations of the faith may only become of direct value during the resolution phase of grief.

God does speak to the Christian bereaved during their loss in a real way; but it is not in the way many people think. To the committed Christian there is no need to speak of the things already known prior to a death – namely heaven and eternal life. They know them and are aware of them. To the uncommitted, it is not a time to evangelise them when they are at their weakest.

Let me emphasise as strongly as I can, the point that during grief, God speaks anonymously. The deeper the concern a person has for the bereaved, the more he will tend to the human need at hand and so be an instrument of God. It is not a time to communicate facts, known or unknown about God – it is a time to tend to a human need and let God speak through that caring.

C.S. Lewis in ‘A Grief Observed’, written after the death of his wife through cancer, writes:

‘Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion, and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion, or I shall expect that you don’t understand.’

Consolation can come later, for as with the human dilemma mentioned, a person must become aware of God’s identification with his loss before he can acknowledge the consolation hope He offers. All we have to do is to care and allow God to work in his own way in the life of that person.


  1. Be sparing in words about God, and deep in the expression of His nature through caring and also help carry the bereaved in their weakness through your prayers for them.
  2. Try and help the bereaved to feel the uniqueness of their situation. Every family feels the loss of a member in a unique way as each member has a special place and so leaves a special vacuum. There is nothing more disconcerting for the bereaved than to hear a prescription as to what is supposed to happen to them over the coming months on the basis of some text book on grief. Identify features of the deceased’s life that you admired and enjoyed and encourage the people to talk about them, and even incite them to re-tell the whole story of loss again.
  3.  Eventually encourage the person to go on living and to gradually re-emerge in the world. Even invite yourself and a few close friends to their hime for a talk or morning tea. Don’t pressure the person to go beyond what they are ready for, or this will create a new guilt feeling that can hinder healing.
  4. Recognise that the death is more akin to an amputation of a leg than a cork in the thigh. That person’s life will never be the same again. There will be times when they will be back at square one, when the memory of the events of that day will sweep upon a home long after a loss as though it all happened only yesterday.

As Lewis wrote:

‘Tonight all the hells of young grief have opened again; the mad words, the bitter resentment, the fluttering in the stomach, the nightmare of unreality, the wallowing in tears. For grief, nothing stays ‘put’. One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral? But if I spiral, am I going up or down?’

Be understanding and patient, and recognise that there will come a point in the life of the bereaved when they will have to answer Jesus’ question to the blind man at the pool: ‘Do you want to be well again?’ For the bereaved can so easily rest in the shadows rather than the sunlight, especially if they have not fully expressed themselves in the reaction phase. Time is not a healer if there is not a foothold upon which healing can develop and that foothold can best be established as reaction is encouraged openly and sharingly.

The ministry to the bereaved is a deep and difficult one made easier by the resources of love God can create in the hardest of human hearts. Love and healing are intertwined, and God can make them both possibilities and realities in the saddest of losses.

We are reminded that death being death, resolution is always only partial. At best resolution looks beyond the paradoxical nature of our deepest experiences of living to that time when questions and doubts will be swallowed up in the certainties, when Christ is all in all.

By George Robert Iles