Contributed by Kara Bowman, LMFT, CT, CCTP, C-GC Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with advanced certifications in Grief Counseling, Trauma, Non-violent Communication, and Thanatology (the study of death and dying). She is passionate about working with grieving and traumatized people because she feels she understands how to support them, having experienced many tragedies in her own life. Kara is also a public speaker, a teacher, a hospice volunteer, and the author of Heartbreak to Hope: Poems of Support for Grief and Loss.

Death is never easy, but unexpected or sudden death can be especially difficult to process. I am a grief and trauma therapist, so I hear heartbreaking stories regularly. I had a young client who went on vacation with his wife. He returned with her in a coffin and an empty seat beside him on the plane. I had another client who looked forward to a wonderful retirement with her healthy husband after many years of him working long hours, only to have him die of a heart attack a month before his final day at work.

While each person’s grief is a unique mosaic, a sudden death can make a difficult time harder. Deaths perceived as untimely or unfair can cause more intense feelings of shock, anger, and disbelief[1]. Sometimes, an unforeseen death can cause grievers to move into complicated grief, in which the griever may feel stuck and unsure of how to live alongside their loss.

Several characteristics are more pronounced when grieving a sudden loss. These can include:

  • Experiencing a sense of unreality, helplessness, guilt, and a strong need to blame.[2]
  • Overwhelming emotions.[3]
  • Overwhelming practical matters to deal with.2
  • Dramatic change to family structure and roles.[4]
  • Avoidance of talking about the death.[5]
  • A strong need to understand why it happened, i.e. to make sense of the loss.[6]
  • Reassessment of core beliefs about the world or spirituality.[7]
  • More severe and prolonged bereavement.[8]
  • Less effective social support. People may shy away from the bereaved person or may say unhelpful things to cheer up the bereaved person.[9]

Even though sudden loss can be incredibly shocking and difficult, there are also many ways you can help yourself through the grieving process. Since these are covered very well in other articles and books,[10] I will focus on how to support yourself through the aspects of grief that may be different following a sudden loss. Since every loss and griever is unique, please feel free to pick and choose the strategies that speak to you. There is no right and wrong. Anything that supports you is right for you. Some ideas are:

Viewing the body.

Some people choose not to view the body due to fears of having upsetting images in their minds. However, research shows that many people regret their decision not to view the body, and “for many…it was a meaning-filled process, even when the body was changed.”[11]

Grief projects.

Activities involving artistic expression or social activism can help make meaning of their death. This could be creating artwork, building a playground, or advocating for a cause.[12]

Stopping negative thoughts.

Rumination and dwelling on emotions, such as anger, anxiety, and self-criticism, have been found to increase grief in those who have experienced sudden death.[13]

Changing the channel.

Some use of avoidance or distraction can help lessen the symptoms of grief in those who have experienced a sudden loss. Avoidance of feelings shouldn’t happen all the time but can be used to give the griever a break and stop rumination.11

Asking for support.

People who experience sudden death are less likely to recognize when they need help, less likely to ask for help, and less likely to know where to go for help.9 Knowing this can help you be more proactive and advocate for yourself.

Finally, it is important to know when to get professional help from a therapist, social worker, or counselor. Humans are social beings, and during times of psychological stress and adjustment, we need other people. Professionals know how to help us when the train has gone off the track.

Since grief is such a different world to begin with, how do you know when you need professional help? Here are some signs:

  • You are having thoughts of suicide or self-harm that you may act on. (Suicide Prevention 800-273-8255)
  • You are using drugs, alcohol, or violence to help yourself cope with your emotions.
  •  You are having trouble functioning, such as showering, dressing, or eating.
  • You are hopeless about ever feeling better, have a low mood all of the time (rather than an up and down mood), and/or your self-esteem is lower than before the death. These can be signs that grief has changed into depression.
  • You had a pre-existing mental illness or trauma that has returned or worsened (anxiety, PTSD, depression, etc.).

Many grievers eventually return to their pre-loss level of happiness and functioning, whether or not the loss was sudden. Years later, the young widower who returned from vacation alone was in a new house and was feeling happy again most of the time. The widow who had looked forward to retirement with her husband had created a full life for herself with friends and new hobbies and travel.

Many grievers eventually return to their pre-loss level of happiness and functioning, whether or not the loss was sudden.

It may take longer than you want or think it should, and it may be harder than anything you have ever done, but if you are gentle with yourself, listen to yourself, support yourself, and get professional help if you need it, you can find happiness again.

For more information about Kara Bowman:

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References Used:

[1] DeRanieri et al., 2002

[2] Rynearson, 1984

[3] Clements et al., 2004

[4] Clements et al., 2003

[5] Clements & Burgess, 2002; Bendersky-Sacks, et al., 2001

[6] Worden, 1991

[7] Attig, 2001

[8] Fulton & Gottesman, 1980

[9] Breen & O’Connor, 2011

[10] Recommended Reading:

               How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies, by Therese Rando

               The Courage to Grieve, by Judy Tatelbaum

               Grief One Day at a Time, by Dr. Alan Wolfelt

               Heartbreak to Hope, by Kara Bowman

               Online forum:

[11] Gillies, Neimeyer, & Milman, 2013; Miyabayashi & Yasuda, 2007

[12] Fast, 2003

[13] Anderson et al., 2005

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