Grief Following a Sudden or Traumatic Death

Few events in life are as painful as the sudden, accidental or traumatic death of a loved one. Such deaths leave the survivors feeling shaken, vulnerable and unsure about the world around them.

Definitions of Sudden, Accidental or Traumatic Deaths

A sudden death is one that occurs without forewarning. Common examples of sudden death are: heart attacks, ruptured aneurysms, post-operative complications, severe anaphylactic reactions, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) or rapidly progressive infectious diseases.

A traumatic death is a type of sudden death where the event is sudden, unexpected, random or preventable, or the result of violent or aggressive behavior by another. Traumatic deaths also may involve multiple deaths, or one in which the mourner has a personal encounter with death. Examples of traumatic deaths include suicide, homicide or natural or man-made disasters, such as the 911 bombings.

Special Grief Concerns Following a Sudden or Traumatic Death

Deaths which are sudden or the result of a traumatic event pose special problems for the survivor. In addition to the typical signs of grief such as anger, denial, sadness and guilt, survivors may feel:

  • Shock
  • Increased vulnerability
  • Physical or emotional fear and anxiety

Very often the grief response is intensified because there is little or no opportunity to prepare for the death.

Sudden or traumatic deaths may also result in secondary losses such as loss of income, loss of home or other property, and strained marital or familial relationships. Survivors of these types of death have a greater chance of developing complicated grief reactions. As well, they may be unable to function at the necessary level required to process grief, resulting in delayed grief reactions. Survivors may also become preoccupied with the circumstances of the death rather than on the person who died.

Factors Affecting the Reactions to Sudden or Traumatic Death

  • Natural vs. Human-caused Deaths: Death from natural causes may result in anger towards the deceased or God. In cases where another human is the cause of death, anger may be focused on the individual(s) responsible for the violence.
  • Degree of Intentionality: With accidental deaths, there is no clear focus on intentionality. If another person caused the death, blame can be directed at that individual.
  • Degree of Preventability: Illnesses such as a heart attack or ruptured aneurysm or natural disasters such as a hurricane, earthquake or tornado may not be seen as preventable. In circumstances where violence has occurred, there maybe “what ifs” involved, especially if the survivor feels some responsibility for the death.
  • Suffering: With sudden or traumatic deaths, survivors may wonder if the person suffered or were aware of what was happening, causing increased stress for the survivor.
  • Scope of the Death: When large numbers of people were affected by the death(s) there may be widespread grief, resulting in fewer people being able to offer support. Conversely, in certain cases, such as multiple deaths from a natural disaster, survivors may feel comforted by the collective grief of others.
  • Degree of Unexpectedness: When sudden death results from an at-risk person dying from a heart attack or life-threatening illness, there is some sense of the inevitability of the death. When the death is traumatic, there is no forewarning and the survivor is shocked.

Coping Strategies for Survivors of Sudden or Traumatic Death

  • Confide in someone, such as a friend or clergy, about your feelings of loss.
  • Be aware that each individual processes grief in their own way, and that the grieving process can take longer for some than for others.
  • Grief may be intensified on anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays.
  • Create your own ritual or other way of saying goodbye to the person who has died.
  • Record your thoughts in a journal, or compose a letter to the person who has died.
  • Maintain your physical health and nutrition.
  • Remember to be kind to yourself, eventually you will begin enjoying life again.

Where Can I Find Support?

  • Locate a survivors support group in your area.
  • Ask your religious or spiritual community for support.
  • Contact a counselor who specializes in bereavement.
  • Contact your local mental health associations for recommendations.

Call Your Physician if:

  • You continue to have intense feelings of yearning that last for a prolonged period of time.
  • You are unable to care for yourself or your family.
  • You have thoughts of harming yourself.
  • You become very depressed.
  • You begin to use or increase the use of drugs or alcohol.

Internet Resources for Survivors: (includes phone number for 24 hour hotline)