Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My teenage son was electrocuted at home accidentally almost 20 years ago. My counselor is not happy with my saying he was killed. I know the difference because about three decades ago, another toddler son died from a cerebral aneurysm , so in my eyes one died and one was killed and to me there are three ways of dying: (1) from old age where the body wears out, (2) from a defective body part or disease, and (3) from trauma from an accident, murder, war or suicide. My counselor won’t accept my analogy, she prefers that they both just died. Am I wrong in feeling the way that I do and saying it as I see it? I see things as black or white and have trouble seeing grey. I am religious and righteous in my outlook. If I get into heaven , I will be having strong words with our maker as I hate seeing the young and innocent being struck down, whilst the nasty and wicked are allowed to survive and multiply! I know that I am carrying suppressed anger and I have the ability to forgive myself and others, but I cannot forget.
The data, as the social scientists say, are on your side. Many studies of the impact of death by various causes document essentially the distinctions you make, as traumatic or violent death losses such as suicide, homicide, and fatal accident tend to lead to more severe and enduring forms of grief than do those resulting from natural death. Of course it is important to recognize that there are many exceptions: the death of a child to any cause is tragic in many senses, and some intentional deaths (as through self-chosen euthanasia) are viewed as peaceful and welcome by many. But in general, “unnatural” losses like those of your adolescent son share many features that increase their traumatic impact, including their suddenness, their violence (even if unintended), the guilt and anger they can engender, and complicating issues of human intention or inattention. If we might well say, “My son was killed in a car accident,” why wouldn’t we use a similar phrasing for an electrical accident?
Of course, as you point out, this is much more than a simple matter of wording; it is a matter of meaning. Implied in the idea of traumatic death is that it is radically at odds with our expectation of what a “just” death should be—it shatters our belief in justice, even of a divine sort, and makes a mockery of our usual belief that we can control events and protect those we love from injury. One outcome, for many religious people, is what we have termed “complicated spiritual grief,” which implies that we have suffered not only terrible distress over the death of our loved one, but also collateral damage to our belief that God is loving, fair, or omnipotent. Instead, we may begin to entertain quite the opposite beliefs, that God is negligent, unpredictable, or impotent. Struggling with such questions across many years can certainly compound our suffering, though it might also lead to a deepening of our belief through the revision of our spirituality along new lines. Works by authors such as Harold Kushner, C.S. Lewis and Pema Chodron, each anchored in a different spiritual tradition, are found by many to be helpful companions in this ongoing journey.