Shock after Loss

When we hear of a global tragedy, like the earthquakes in Japan or the Oslo bombing, we experience a sense of shock and numbness. This is also a common response when learning that a loved one has died.

Shock has a purpose – it acts like an insulation to protect us from fully taking in what happened. In a sense, it allows us to take in what has happened in small doses. That’s not a bad thing. Sometimes the reality of what has happened is so overwhelming and astounding that to take it in all at once would do more harm than good.

Shock doesn’t last for only a few hours. It can go on for a long time – for months even. What does it feel like to be in shock? It’s not uncommon to feel as though you walking in a fog, living in a dream, or just feeling stunned or dazed by what has occurred. Again there is a purpose to experiencing shock. Dr. Alan Wolfelt explains it like this, “Your emotions need time to catch up with what your mind has been told.”

It is critically important for those offering support to not rush the bereaved through this response. It takes time and they will drift in and out of the reality of their loss for an undetermined length of time. They won’t necessarily be able to take in what is being told to them… in fact, the words they are hearing are likely not even connecting for them. They will remember however, being comforted by those who love them and receiving unconditional support during that time.

People in shock may experience physiological responses too. It’s not uncommon to have aches and pains, heart palpitations, and an overall sense of feeling unwell. Emotions are overwhelming and they may cry or laugh uncontrollably and not always at the appropriate time. This may make others uncomfortable but if they can understand that it is perfectly normal, they can be of tremendous support to the person who is experiencing it.

In these early days of loss, it is important for people to be supported by a loving, understanding and patient network. Supporters should be prepared to provide a safe, nurturing place for their friend or family member to work through the process… and not to have an agenda of pushing them to accept the reality of the loss. They need time to take it in and sometimes it is best to absorb it in ‘bite-size pieces.’


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