I remember the day, like it was yesterday, when I heard the news. I was 7 years old sitting in a Sunday School classroom waiting to enjoy the morning with singing, crafts and a good story. Our teacher had us all sitting on the floor and instead of telling us a good story, she shared a most tragic one, our friend BJ had died. The room was so quiet and I remember frantically searching the faces of my friends sitting there to see if they understood. I was well acquainted with death at the age of 7 because my two sisters had died years prior and my family would talk about them often. But this was different, this was my friend, I knew him. Our teacher explained to us that BJ was riding his bike when a car hit him and he died. BJ would not be returning to class. I don’t remember much else after that except for feeling very sad. The following weeks at church were very difficult. Sometimes I would save a seat for BJ. I remember my teacher trying to explain to me that he was not going to come back. And I remember muttering, “Well it’s his seat and I am saving it for him.”
BJ’s death, the death of my sisters and several other deaths that occurred in my life shaped who I am and influenced my career choice to become a grief counselor. Talking about death was commonplace in my house. I grew up in a grieving house. My family valued the ceremony and ritual of funerals and visiting the graves. We talked about the deceased as living people, who left us too early and often suddenly. Our talks were not morbid but were healthy, honoring and healing.
In Jack Smith’s book, Car Accident: A Practical Recovery Manual, he describes how a family can debrief after an accident or after a sudden death. Citing Dr. Jeffery Mitchell’s work, Smith recommends a time for all involved to gather within 2 days of the accident/death to talk about the facts, thoughts, emotions, reactions and questions. The debriefing time can be led by a counselor or family led. The purpose is to get the facts about what happened and allow a time for all to give their perspective with no judgement. It allows the family to listen and hear what the other’s thoughts and feelings are at the current time. It also allows time to check in with the children to help explain or answer questions and helps alleviate some of their fears. The purpose is connection and does not always mean answers will be found or given. It allows a space to talk about something important that has shaken everybody’s world.
When I think about my friend BJ and his sudden death all those years ago, I am grateful for our teacher telling us the truth of what happened. I think it could have been done better but then again that was the late 70s so I will be happy with what we had. I wonder now as an adult how BJ’s parents received support, what really happened that day and did the person, who killed BJ, find justice or peace? Did BJ know that he was my friend and that I cared about him? No one talked more about BJ, but as I grew up and learned about grief, I have honored and remembered him. So, if BJ’s family ever reads this, please know your son-your brother was loved and he was my friend and I will always remember him.
What can you do when you receive bad news?
* Find someone who will sit with you as you hear the story. You may want to make a time to meet up with others who know more of what happened. Have someone who can take care of you while this meeting happens.
* Write out or record the news. This can be helpful to play back when you forget details or when you get lost in the grief brain fog.
* Express your thoughts, feelings, and questions with other caring people.
* I Wasn’t Read to Say Goodbye is a nice book that talks about sudden loss.
* Progressing Through Grief: Guided Exercises is another great resource to help with these difficult conversations