Death, Grief, and Shattered Assumptions

“Some people’s lives seem to flow in a narrative; mine had many stops and starts. That’s what trauma does. It interrupts the plot. You can’t process it because it doesn’t fit with what came before or what comes afterwards.” ― Jessica Stern

You never think the worst will happen to you, and then one day it does.  One day – in the time it takes for a doctor to utter the words ‘terminal cancer’, or for a driver to look down to find their phone, or for an artery to stop sending blood to the brain, or for a police officer to sharply knock on your front door – your life comes to an earth-shattering halt.

Before the worst happened you lived in a world that made sense; one that had structure and order and most of the time looked like a Norman Rockwell painting. Now you live in a world that feels meaningless and random and looks more like a Pablo Picasso.Untitled

In 1992, psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman described the theory of shattered assumptions in her book, Shattered assumptions: Towards a new psychology of trauma.  Although this theory is most often applied to trauma (which many of you have probably experienced), it helps to explain adjustment after any type of experience that challenges a person’s belief system or worldview.

In a very basic nutshell, the theory of shattered assumptions says that people operate according to a conceptual system based on a set of assumptions about the world, the self, and others. These personally held assumptions about how the world works, help you make sense of the world and your role within it.  They also help you to feel safe, capable, and in control of what happens to you and, in some ways, those around you. Psychologists refer to our basic assumptions as the “assumptive world” and believe that when extreme events challenge this assumptive world significant distress and disruption can occur.

For example: Before the worst happened, your assumptions may have lead you to assume that the world is logical; bad things happen for a reason; there is justice in the world; and if you ‘do everything right’ then things will turn out okay.  After you realized that there are things your worldview absolutely cannot reconcile or account for.

In the theory of shattered assumptions, Janoff-Bulman discusses three main assumptions that can be challenged by trauma.  You may have experienced upheaval around one or more of these basic assumptions, depending on your previously held beliefs, your perceptions around your loved one’s death, and your grief.

Assumptions about the benevolence of the world:

These assumptions refer to beliefs that (1) the world is generally a safe place where more good happens than bad and (2) the belief that most people have good intentions and can be trusted. Together these beliefs can lead a person to underestimate the likelihood that negative events will happen to them and create a false sense of invulnerability.  When a traumatic event shatters these assumptions, a person can feel anxious and helpless in a world that suddenly seems threatening and filled with dangerous and bad people.

How you feel about the benevolence of the world in the wake of your loved one’s death may depend on how you perceive the events that led up to and followed their death.  In general, once you experience the death of a loved one, it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the reality that your loved ones can be taken from you at any moment.  Evidence of this can be seen in a study by Kristensen et al (2012) where 132 participants who had lost a close relative due to cancer were surveyed one-month post bereavement.  In this study, a large portion of the respondents showed a tendency to believe they would get cancer themselves.

Assumptions about the meaningfulness of the world:

These assumptions refer to beliefs that the world is orderly, just, and logical.  In other words, this is the belief that the world makes sense.

When someone assumes that “everything happens for a reason” they might correspondingly believe that they have more control over events than they truly do. Also, if a person assumes they live in a “just world” they may believe they can protect themselves from negative experiences by behaving in a way that is “right” or “good”.  Some examples of this include…

If I eat right and exercise I won’t get cancer

If I’m a good mother my child won’t use drugs or engage in risky behavior

If we are strong in our faith we’ll be protected from evil 

Your loved one’s death may contradict many of your beliefs about the meaningfulness of the world.  Perhaps the death feels unfair, perhaps it violates your sense of control, or perhaps it proves that bad things can happen to good people.

The search for meaning…

The feeling that your loved one’s death was senseless or meaningless may ultimately lead you to ask the question – “Why?!?”  

“Why did they have to die? Why did this happen to me? Who is at fault? What can I do to prevent this from happening again?”

As you search for meaning, you may find that you blame yourself or someone else for the death.  As bad as it feels to believe you are personally responsible for the death, or to believe that someone else is responsible, it may feel even worse to grapple with the possibility that bad things happen at random.

Additionally, you may wind up being hurt by other people’s assumptions about the meaningfulness of the world.  Remember, some people want to believe that bad things only happen to people who deserve it.  So if someone has ever made an insensitive comment about why your loved one deserved what happened or how they brought the death upon themselves, this may be why.

Assumptions about the self as worthy:

Assumptions about the self as worthy refer to one’s perceptions that they are good, fortunate and lucky, and deserving of only good things.  These self-perceptions can lead a person to believe that they are worthy, decent, and capable people. The experience of trauma and victimization can cause a person to question their sense-of-self and to feel helpless, out of control, and, in an effort to make sense of the world, deserving of the trauma or loss.

Obviously individual feelings self-worth vary, but in someone who has not already experienced victimization or trauma, it makes sense that one might be lulled into the false sense that the world wants what’s best for them. Further, if someone has never been tested by hardship, it’s easy for them to assume they would be able to resiliently cope with obstacles and maintain their sense-of-self throughout.

In truth, hardships like trauma and grief can rock your sense-of-self in a way you would never have imagined.  I’ve heard many people say that grief made them feel like they were going utterly crazy. No one prepares you to deal with your spiraling sense-of-self in the face of grief and, for many, it can take a long time to get to know yourself in the wake of such trauma and loss.

Okay, that’s enough for today. If you want help coping with grief head over to our coping section or read this post on post-traumatic growth. 

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COMMENTS

Jean

Posted on June 21, 2016 at 7:58 pm

I relate to this article, not because of the death of a loved one, not really a death, but a death of sorts. “You never think the worst will happen to you, and then one day it does.” My son was diagnosed with schizophrenia. This is truly my nightmare that’s come true! I lived a Norman Rockwell life for a long time. A marriage, a beautiful home, and two perfect children, a boy and a girl. I was involved at their school, I taught Sunday school. I didn’t send my children off to school with a Pop Tart in their bellies. No, I fed them a hot breakfast. I don’t doubt my mothering. I know I was a good mother and their dad a wonderful dad. Our children were kissed and hugged and we said “I love you,” many times a day. But alas, to no avail, schizophrenia came anyway.

I can relate to this article in many ways. I am very much on a journey now. My life is so different. I am wondering why? Why? What’s the point? I mean, I don’t think my son was put here on this earth to be a potato 🙁 I have read and read and studied and studied about the terrible mental illness paranoid schizophrenia, and yet I don’t find the answers. I keep reading and studying, but I’m really not even sure why I do at this point.

So yes, I can really relate to your article, Eleanor. That’s my grief. Peace . . .

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Eleanor

Posted on June 21, 2016 at 8:14 pm

Hey Jean,

I totally hear you. Grief can be felt in response to all types of losses. Even though your son is still alive, it’s natural to grieve the life and relationsihp you had and the life you thought he would have in the future. Quite often when we talk about the type of loss associated with mental illness, we use the term ambiguous loss which we wrote a post on here. But truly, with regards to this post, the theory of shattered assumptions applies to any trauma, hardship, or experience that violates your previously held beliefs. My heart goes out to you and I wish you well as you navigate this new reality.

Eleanor

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Helena

Posted on June 21, 2016 at 11:07 pm

I am a reader from Australia and have never commented on a blog before, but
I related so much to this post and was moved by Jean’s response. Her pain is my pain. Our 31 year old son died suddenly on the 31st January 2015. He was our much loved middle child between two daughters. It would be untrue to say that we were not worried about him in recent years. He had a successful but stressful creative freelance career in another city. We saw each other several times a year and were in constant contact. We felt he was drinking a lot and we had already supported him in recovering from a xanax addiction, after that drug was prescribed by a GP. We were starting to worry about the amount of codeine he might be taking. He was obviously unwell and the previous two years there had been many doctor visits and tests. And as he was getting older he was definately trying for a healthier lifestyle.
So when the police came to tell us he had died, we initially thought of accidental drug overdose. However the police found no evidence of that and a coroners report was needed. It was found that our son died of coronary artery vasculitis. Probably with an underlying autoimmune disease. His heart was badly damaged. Explaining the fatigue, the mood swings, the pain in his shoulders, the sweating, the dizziness, etc. How did we not see this? How come the several doctors in two states did not see this? I am tormented that we could not care for him, give him comfort. We would have turned the world upside down trying to find medical help. He died not knowing what was wrong with him. Others have said to me that he would not have coped knowing he had such an illness. He liked life fast paced. He walked fast, talked fast, had a lively and quick intellect. He was vitally interested in his work, in people, in the world. He loved and was loved. But I lament that I could not have comforted and loved him in his distress. It is so strange as I always thought, at least he is fundamentally healthy. So tall and such a strong body. So I also am searching. Where is he? Is he ok? My assumptions of myself as a parent and my assumptions of our place in the world have been shattered. I now am anxious about my other children.
Posts like this do help, so thank you. I have not been able to work. I am taking things slowly – I do yoga. I paint and I am trying to start to collate our sons enormous body of work – he was a filmmaker.

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Litsa

Posted on June 22, 2016 at 7:46 am

Helena, I am so sorry for what you are going through. It sounds like you were a wonderful parent to your son, supporting him in the ways you knew and could. We have another post you might find helpful on coping with guilt and the “coulda, woulda, shouldas” that can become consuming. http://www.whatsyourgrief.com/guilt-and-grief-2/ It is wonderful that you are working to catalogue your sons work. I am sure that is a big and emotional project, but I imagine it also may be a wonderful way to carry on his legacy and continue your bond with your son. I am glad you have found some support in posts like this one. Take care.

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Stephanie Vaughan Johnson

Posted on June 22, 2016 at 9:48 pm

Hi Helena
I am also from Australia and I was touched by your very thoughtful blog. I am interested in grief from both a personal perspective (I just lost my young brother (59) after a 8 year battle with Parkinson’s disease and my role as a celebrant. I find most people who lose either a child or a younger person struggle to find answers where in most cases there are none. I have found the latter more difficult to accept.
Again thank you for sharing and may peace be yours one day. Your project sounds a true work of love. Stephanie

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Glomeske

Posted on June 22, 2016 at 8:52 am

I so relate to both posts above. Before I go further, I was happy (?) to see a new WYG post today, the year mark of losing my beautiful 28 yr. old Laura. Laura dealt with depression, alcoholism, & an eating disorder related to her type 1 diabetes. It’s hard to remember now how hard life was for her at times, because all I see is her smiling face, her good days! & there were plenty. But unbeknownst to us or her, the damage she had done to her body was too great. She left us unexpectedly the day after Fathers Day last year, after ha on a good, perfectly normal day, no signs of any of her issues. Which is why I question, she was tryin to live better, doing her best. No reward for that? Her dr. told me Laura would not want to have lived with some of the serious complications of diabetes, she just wanted to be like her “normal, beautiful” sisters. I too, would did any & everything to support her (most say I already did ) if I knew this end result… I jus keep remembering what her dr told me; Laura did her very best, & so did you. If you have never been faced with hardship, you just don’t know. Thank you for your always thought provoking, supportive articles.

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Litsa

Posted on June 25, 2016 at 10:10 pm

Ah, I am sure the year mark was a tough day. It sounds like Laura went through a lot and I can imagine that the fact that she had been doing well and then died so unexpectedly, on a normal day, would make things especially difficult to make sense of. Thanks for your kind words about our articles – I am so glad they have been of some support.

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Jen

Posted on June 22, 2016 at 3:37 pm

This article struck a nerve with me — so much truth. It was very hard for me to get through with dry eyes. It hits a big nerve. Thank you for sharing!

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Litsa

Posted on June 25, 2016 at 10:11 pm

Ah Jen, sorry it brought tears and hope it was some support. Take care.

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Deb

Posted on June 23, 2016 at 1:35 pm

The shattering of basic assumptions also hugely applies to the grief of betrayal, another type of “living” loss. It would be great to see an article addressing that too, as most people don’t seem to think of grief as another after-effect of being betrayed, but it is.
Thanks once again for another great post!

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Litsa

Posted on June 25, 2016 at 10:30 pm

Ah, yes Deb that is definitely a significant loss and, though we haven’t written about it directly, we do have a couple of posts that are very relevant to betrayal. One is this post about learning “secrets” about a person, and the other is this post on ambiguous grief, which is grieving a person who is still living for any number of reasons.

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Donna Anderson

Posted on June 24, 2016 at 3:33 pm

Wow, how you hit the nail on the head. I just shared this article to my fb timeline so that others who care to, can see what has happened to me and why the person they all knew died with my son the morning I walked into my son’s room to find he had completed his suicide. I now live in the Picasso painting, or the other description I use is that of the funhouse at the county fair. The very ground I walk on is no longer stable, but moves continually under my feet, and everyone now looks like the shapes distorted by the curved mirrors, yet this funhouse has no exit. You dont suddenly pop out the other side laughing about how fun that was. It is a daily nightmare, with your eyes wide open. Sleeping brings no relief, for it is filled with either nightmares or the sunny smiling days that can no longer be found. Awakening in the morning means the reminder that the nightmare is real. The brick gets slammed into my chest within seconds of waking, taking all the breath from my lungs. How I still have liquid tears at all tends to amaze me. It’s been 22 months since my death, so why does my heart still beat?

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Janie Smith

Posted on June 25, 2016 at 7:11 pm

People lose others that they love…their parents, their grandparents, their friends, their husbands, their babies. But you go on and you wake up everyday and you continue your life and try to do a good job of that life as if they were watching. You stay busy with work (do you have a job?) you stay in touch with others that are still on earth (do you have other children?) You just go on. Or you just give in and end your misery because everyone has problems and yours are no better or worse than anyone elses.

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Litsa

Posted on June 25, 2016 at 11:09 pm

Janie, I think what you say is very true and I would add that much of it happens one day at a time, one moment at a time, focusing on just living through the moment at hand and, if we are lucky, finding some gratitude in that. Though days can feel utterly hopeless, it is often about remembering there is hope even when it doesn’t feel like there is. It can feel like a ‘fake it til you make it’ situation. We have a post here that is (sort of) about this that may be of some support.

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Janie Smith

Posted on June 25, 2016 at 11:19 pm

Oh, I am not pissing and moaning about anything for myself. I am sick of others just going on and on and on and everyday they are barely able to hold on to their life and I say to them “get a life”. Your loved one is gone, they will not be back, you need to go on and live your life or join them?!?!?

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Litsa

Posted on June 26, 2016 at 12:37 am

Janie, we want this space to be a space that people can read each others’ experiences, share experiences and provide feedback, but if reading the feelings and experiences of others is causing the level of frustration you describe, the comments on our site may not be a healthy/helpful space for you. Grief is a process and, sadly, most people don’t flip a switch to get on with life (though it would be nice if that was the case!). It is normal to struggle with the day to day of life in grief, so many share that here. Luckily most people get to a better place eventually, but only after time and work, and this is a place where we support people in sharing the struggles that come every step of the way in their grief. If that isn’t how your grief experience has been that is absolutely okay, and if you don’t like hearing others talk about that experience that is obviously absolutely okay too. We all grieve differently and we know not everyone wants or is able to read the experiences of others. But to choose to read others’ experiences and then suggest that if others don’t grieve in a specific way the other alternative is suicide is insensitive and potentially dangerous to those reading your comments who are struggling with suicidal ideations. Nearly 120 people die of suicide every day and nearly 3000 attempt suicide daily – we never know who may read a comment here and where they may be emotionally, which is why we take comments about suicide extremely seriously. This site is filled with hundreds of articles on how to cope with grief – learning coping skills, learning more about grief, communicating, and seeking support. We hope they are helpful to those grieving. But to anyone who is considering suicide, there is always help – you can call 911, go into your local Emergency Room, or call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). To anyone struggling with the impact of reading about other people’s experiences and losses in the posts and comments here or on other websites, please take a break and get space from our posts and comments. You may wish to learn more about vicarious trauma and the risks associated with exposure to the experiences and emotions of others. You can find a good article by the American Counseling Association on this topic here.

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Litsa

Posted on June 25, 2016 at 10:51 pm

Oh Donna, I am so sorry for the death of your son. I am sure many can relate to that description of the “funhouse”. You may have seen it already, but in case you have not we have a post specifically on grieving a suicide loss. The post can be found here.

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Yam Kahol

Posted on June 29, 2016 at 12:18 pm

Dear Donna,
I’m sorry to hear about your son. Thank you for sharing your experience.
Wish you well – even if that seems impossible right now, I hope that relief is just round the corner for you.
Yam

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Tjwanna Torgerson

Posted on June 24, 2016 at 10:11 pm

Excellent article!

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Litsa

Posted on June 25, 2016 at 10:51 pm

Thanks Tjwanna.

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elizabeth

Posted on August 9, 2016 at 4:20 pm

Eleanor, Thank you for this post. It touches on one of the large parts of the grief I have been dealing with since my father died. It’s fascinating to me how grief isn’t just about missing someone or not understanding the point of life, but it also has shattered my sense of self. I always though I had this strong sense of self that existed independent of whether my parents were dead or alive. Who is the Jessica Stern you quoted? I love that . Thank you, Elizabeth

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Litsa

Posted on August 9, 2016 at 10:55 pm

I am glad the post resonated with you, Elizabeth. Jessica Stern is a Harvard researcher who has done research on trauma , violence and terrorism. It is amazing how our identity is connect to those around us. It is often something that is underestimated until you feel the impact.

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