Sudden violent death Editorial
Stabroek News
April 17, 2003

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The reaction to the death of a loved one is usually grief. But it can also encompass a range of emotions that are powerful and consuming; anger, sadness, loneliness, fear, guilt and helplessness, depending on the nature of the death. A review done by Stacey Kaltman and George A. Bonanno of the Catholic University of America in Maryland and Columbia University in New York respectively, links sudden and violent deaths with excessive or traumatic grief reactions.

But sudden violent death whether through suicide, fatal motor or other accidents, drowning or murder can create chaotic situations, including public curiosity and media coverage, that interferes with the natural process of grief. Media attention, though justified, involves constant reminders of what has occurred, which includes photographs, interviews, television appearances and perhaps this prevents the denial that would otherwise overtake those left behind. Well-meaning but ignorant sympathisers mouth platitudes about it being fate and that time heals all wounds. However, instead of leaving it to time, they increasingly appear with inane chitchat, which is intended to cheer, but which disenfranchises mourners of their grief and can lead to mental problems including avoidance reactions and post-traumatic stress disorder.

American psychotherapist Tom Golden likens the grief experience to being trapped in the belly of a snake. In his book, Swallowed by a Snake, he tells the story of a fictional flute player who allows himself to be swallowed by a giant boa constrictor to stop it from preying on the people of his village. The flute player then cuts his way through the snake’s body until he gets to its heart. Once he cuts that organ the creature dies and he is able to take the glad news to his village. Golden’s analogy sees the mourner cut off from everyday life, in a dark tight spot, but having faith that cutting away a little bit of the belly at a time would lead to the ‘heart of the matter’ - long-term adjustment. He notes that this is not accomplished from outside but from inside the snake, and therefore maybe this is how grief ought to be tackled through a person’s inner strengths.

Guyana has seen more than its fair share of sudden violent deaths over the last few years. Many have been unexplained and senseless murders followed by public outrage and protest. Often family members, caught up in the struggle to see justice done, deny themselves a proper mourning period.

Grief counselling is available in Guyana, but is seldom offered in sudden violent death situations because our culture does not readily lend itself to the process. But those who want to help could perhaps facilitate support groups whereby the bereaved in such situations could talk about how they feel, rather than listen to advice on how they ought to react. The groups need not be organised, should be voluntary and should cater only to persons who have had similar experiences. The lack of support which forces people to cope alone also leads easily to chronic depression, abuse and other negative reactions. As Shakespeare said: “Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it...break.”

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