Dealing with Sudden Death

A sudden, accidental, unexpected or traumatic death shatters the world as we know it. It is often a loss that does not make sense. We realize that life is not always fair, and that sometimes bad things happen to good people. The sudden death leaves us feeling shaken, unsure and vulnerable.

Death due to a sudden or traumatic accident or illness can raise a number of complex issues for the survivors. The grief process is often very different from an expected or anticipated death. Death from a chronic disease tends to be easier to accept than a death from a random accident or a sudden medical crisis that comes out of the blue. Homicide, suicide, or exceptionally traumatic events can cause reactions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on the part of survivors and family members. Sudden loss or death creates special problems for the survivors. Many of these problems compound the grief response.

The grief response following sudden loss is often intensified since there is little to no opportunity to prepare for the loss, say good-bye, finish unfinished business or prepare for a life apart—for closure. Families and friends are suddenly forced to face the loss of a loved one instantaneously and without warning. This type of loss can generate intense grief responses such as shock, anger, guilt, sudden depression, despair and hopelessness.

A sudden tragic event shatters our sense of order and thrusts us into a world forever changed. Survivors of sudden loss may experience a greater sense of vulnerability and heightened anxiety. The safe world we once knew no longer exists. We fear for ourselves, our family and friends. Survivors can become overwhelmingly preoccupied with thoughts that such a random act might happen again.

Along with the primary loss of the person, families and loved ones may experience secondary losses: lost income, loss of home, loss of social network. The role the loved one held in the family is gone. It takes time for the family to reorganize. Relationships that have been strained in the past become more stressed as all family members cope with the loss. The family may be left feeling in a state of disarray.

Additional problems arise if the grieving survivor was involved in the accident. Memories of the accident may dominate the person’s mind. They may be feeling numbness, unreality and fear. The bereaved person may suffer from ‘survivor’s guilt’, wondering why they survived when others have died and believing that they could have or should have done more to prevent the tragedy.

The reaction to sudden deaths can be further complicated if the death is due to a violent act. Waiting for an arrest or trial can be agonizing and prolongs the grieving process.

Suicide is one of the most agonizing kinds of death for family to endure. This type of death can result in shame, anger and guilt if family members blame themselves or are blamed for the death. It is often hard for family to acknowledge a loved one’s death by suicide making it harder to receive support and comfort.

The search for meaning of the loss can challenge a survivor’s religious and spiritual beliefs. Sudden losses often cause people to question their internal belief system and values. Goals, plans and purchases which were important the week before the event, suddenly seem trivial by comparison. Survivors are forced to look at and re-evaluate life priorities. Survivors are left asking “Why?”, yet it may be difficult if not impossible to find an answer. The question “Why?” is more of a plea for meaning and understanding, an expression of distress. Not all questions have complete answers. The question might be “how do I pick up the pieces and go on living a meaningful life?’

Adapted from Loss, Change and Grief at the website