When a loved one passes away unexpectedly, the grieving process changes drastically.
Although the grieving process is unique for everyone, a sudden loss does not allow the bereaved to properly prepare to enter this process.
No amount of time will ever be enough with the loved one, and losing them unexpectedly may cause overwhelming feelings such as shock, disbelief, sadness, and anger to name just a few.
Death is included in the package of life. We all know this, but it doesn’t make coping any easier when experiencing a death— expected or unexpected.
Factors Affecting How People Grieve an Unexpected Death
Coping with a sudden loss is a challenge in general. However, there are many factors that can make this grieving process even more challenging.
- How did the loved one die?
- Did they have a heart attack?
- Were they murdered?
- Could the death have been prevented?
The term “unexpected death” includes the loss of a loved one by suicide, accidents, or an unknown illness. When the illness is known but the loved one passes before their expected time, this is also deemed as a sudden or unexpected death. For homicides and some accidents, a trial could greatly prolong the grieving process. Suicides, on the other hand, may leave the griever with anger, guilt, and a sense of unreality.
Traumatic deaths — deaths that are sudden but also violent and sometimes preventable — may cause family and friends to fear for their lives or their family’s lives. An example of a traumatic death would be the Las Vegas shooting in 2017 or death due to a natural disaster.
Unfortunately, there are countless other factors that would take hours upon hours to walk through. Instead, we will discuss common factors that affect how people grieve an unexpected loss.
The death was human-caused or unnatural.
Homicide and other unnatural causes of death are more uncommon compared to natural causes of death. Feelings of helplessness may overwhelm you as you realize you cannot control the world around you. Having nightmares or flashbacks of the incident is normal. Additionally, If your loved one was murdered, you may feel unsafe in public spaces and around people.
Not being able to answer the question “why” may be something that haunts you. In the Netflix Series, “The Pharmacist,” a father seeks to answer the “why” behind his son’s murder. It’s a fascinating tale of what drives us, and how we all have opportunities to turn tragedy into success. The father was ground zero for waging war back against pharmaceutical companies selling opioids to doctors.
Many times, the person who commits a murder will not state a motive. If this is the case, speaking with a support group will be highly beneficial for the griever’s mental health. It’s important to let the bereaved grieve in their own way. Sometimes the bereaved will be involved in the case while others will not.
In some cases, the murderer will not be found, leaving the deceased’s family and friends without justice and peace. On top of losing a loved one, the bereaved is also dealing with how their loved one died. Therefore, the grief experienced in this situation will be quite different than if the deceased passed away naturally.
“Grief is painful and uncomfortable and it is our natural inclination to try to end it or stop it or dull it for our loved one,” says Alex Maceda, Director of Brand and Client Experience at Two Chairs.
“In the moment, try not to impose your own ideas of or timeline on what a person needs after a loss, and listen to what they’re asking for, verbally or otherwise.”
Panic, shock, and anger are common reactions to losing someone to a natural disaster. Similar to a homicide, the bereaved may feel helpless and powerless. In addition to losing a friend or family member, the griever may have lost personal belongings which could intensify the grieving process.
If it was intentional.
With homicides and suicides, the degree of intentionality is high. In the case of a homicide, the killer was aware of the senseless act of violence they were out to commit. As stated earlier, the question “why” is often left unanswered, which causes more anxiety to the bereaved.
Similar to homicides, suicides may also leave “why” unanswered. Since suicide is defined as the act of taking one’s own life, not having the answer to “why” may cause family and friends to be stuck in the grieving process.
Could this happen to me? This is my fault. I could have prevented this. I should have been there.
These are all common thoughts when experiencing the shock and disbelief after a sudden loss. On the other hand, it is also normal to not feel anything at all for a period of time.
I will never forget the day when I found out my friend Bryce committed suicide. He was so young and had the rest of his life in front of him. I was angry, confused, and felt empty for quite some time, but one of my friends struggled with guilt for three years after his passing. She knew he had been depressed and in a constant state of misery for most of his life, and she felt like his death was on her hands.
If the bereaved feels guilty, it’s important to reassure them that it’s not their fault so they may begin the journey to the next chapter of life.
Also, we shouldn’t define someone’s life by the last moments of it. People are far greater than a few minutes or hours or days. Focus on their life by talking about who they were, what they loved, and honoring them in your life now. Focus on their life, not on their death.
If it was preventable.
It’s almost impossible to tell whether or not a death was preventable. Deaths caused by natural disasters are usually unpreventable. Suicides, homicides, accidents and many deaths due to illnesses, however, may be perceived as so. The term “preventable” is open to interpretation to most grievers, which may also lead to overwhelming guilt.
When my parents told me my grandfather passed away, I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. He was all alone in his last few moments after the heart attack, and I prayed over and over again in my mind that he didn’t suffer. I became obsessed with “what ifs” like “What if someone had been there to call 911 sooner? What if he hadn’t been alone through it all?”
Asking “what ifs” is normal with any kind of loss. However, it’s easy to get sucked into unreality, which may prolong the grieving process. Remember instead to focus on their life, not the way they died.
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How much the loved one suffered.
In my grandfather’s final moments, I always hope that he didn’t suffer. I don’t think he was frightened of death since he was a religious man and close with God. He loved everyone as if they were his brothers and sisters and tried to spread as much joy as he possibly could.
His death should have been instantaneous and peaceful. No one was there with him during his last moments, so I can only hope he went peacefully.
For a while though, the thoughts of his passing overshadowed my memories of him. I was more concerned with how he died rather than how he lived and how he impacted so many lives. This, too, may interrupt the grieving process and prolong it.
Some people find comfort in learning the deceased passed away immediately rather than having to suffer. Others may be overwhelmed with anxiety that their loved one wasn’t able to prepare for their death. Everyone is different, and everyone will experience grief differently.
That is OK and perfectly normal.
Hold the space for this grief. Let the feelings and thoughts arise and then pass again.
Sound therapy may be helpful, too, in the case you feel stuck in your grief.
If the bereaved was involved.
There are instances where the bereaved may have survived while their loved one did not. Surviving a car wreck is an example of this.
In situations where the bereaved either witnessed the death of their loved one or was involved somehow, the grieving process is extremely different than the grieving process associated with other sudden deaths. For example, survivors may struggle with PTSD (post-traumatic Stress Disorder) or flashbacks of how their loved one died.
Additionally, survivors may experience guilt and ask themselves why they survived but their loved one did not. This guilt may possibly lead to anger or numbness.
If the survivor was injured in any way, they may be more fixated on the event that caused their injuries and their loved one’s death rather than their memories of the person they lost.
If you know someone who survived an accident or any event that resulted in someone else’s death, it’s important to know that there isn’t a formula for grief. Some people laugh, some people cry, some people don’t do anything. There is no right or wrong reaction to losing someone you love.
If the loved one left the bereaved with unfinished business.
Regret is another extremely common reaction to losing a loved one unexpectedly. If the relationship between the deceased and the bereaved was strained, the bereaved may regret not mending the relationship before their loved one’s passing.
In a scenario where the deceased left a family member or friend with unfinished business, the family or friend may struggle to take care of this unfinished business. This means the bereaved are now dealing with the loss and what the deceased may have left behind.
The term “unfinished business” may include strained relationships that require mending, financial business such as debt, or other legal matters.
It’s okay to feel overwhelmed with stress during these times. When my grandfather passed away, my grandmother had to take care of financial business on top of dealing with losing her husband. Luckily, my father was there to help her through both her grief and the financial burdens.
Ways Sudden Deaths Differ from Expected Loss
Sudden deaths are classified as “unexpected.” These deaths include homicides, accidents, suicide, miscarriage or the loss of a baby, and other forms of unexpected losses. On the other hand, an example of an expected loss would be a death due to a terminal illness like cancer.
Although any death may leave family and friends with a strong sense of hopelessness and anxiety, without warning, death may cause both external and internal crises. For example, many family members and friends may feel depressed or struggle with a lack of motivation to continue their daily routines.
It’s important to note that not everyone will have the same experiences or reactions when dealing with an unexpected loss.
Shock and disbelief last longer.
Even with expected losses, shock and disbelief are very common.
However, sudden deaths do not allow the griever to prepare for the loss, which makes it incredibly difficult to even begin the grieving process.
With no time to prepare, shock and disbelief pull you in, keeping you from taking the first step to cope with the loss.
There is no time to say goodbye.
Saying goodbye to a loved one, even if the death is expected, can be difficult for many people.
However, there is an opportunity to say goodbye when losing someone to a terminal illness. With unexpected deaths, that opportunity no longer exists. This means that grieving will become an even more daunting task for most people.
You may have strong feelings of guilt.
Although this is completely normal when dealing with a sudden loss, many people often feel guilty and ask themselves questions like:
- “Why them and not me?”
- “Why wasn’t I there with them?”
- “Could I have prevented this from happening?”
Survivors of a tragic event may feel as though they could have prevented the death of their loved one. In some cases, survivors may feel guilty for being alive when the other is not.
You may feel a need for more information.
This is where the 5 Ws come into play the most. When losing a family member or a friend suddenly, the first thing many people do is wonder:
- What happened
- Why did it happen
- Who caused it to happen, if anyone.
Losing someone to a homicide may leave the bereaved wondering who committed the crime. Unfortunately, in some cases, the body may never be found which leaves another question unanswered.
People who lose someone to a medical condition but had no knowledge of the condition prior to the death may also be left with unanswered questions such as: “What caused their death?” “When did their illness begin?”
Of course, there is a question that will always be left unanswered— “Why him/her?”
This is where we have to assign our own meaning to the events that have happened to us and our loved ones.
Through legacy projects and personalized memorial, we can work through the deep grief, notice signs, and build a new understanding of the world around us.
It is often traumatic.
Sudden losses are often a result of tragic events such as car accidents. Therefore, the griever is dealing with the trauma along with the death of a family member or friend.
If someone found the loved one’s body, this is a whole other type of trauma. Many people replay the event in their head over and over again.
It has been about five years since my grandfather’s passing, and my aunt still thinks of finding my grandfather. Some people are able to move on while others struggle immensely.
Ways to Cope With a Sudden Death
When dealing with a sudden loss, it’s important that the bereaved accepts their feelings and shares them with others. Speaking with a professional is also a great step and may allow the griever to come to terms with their feelings and find possible routes to take through the grieving process.
During times of grief, taking care of yourself mentally and physically is necessary. Taking care of your mental health will make it easier to face the next chapter of life. Simple things like showering, brushing your teeth, and going to school/work can make a huge difference in the grieving process.
These are rituals that can help ground you. Even taking a walk down the street can help as you let nature reset your thoughts and activate your body-mind connection.
Talk to people who went through a similar experience.
Support groups are incredibly beneficial. If you don’t want to talk about your experience, you should at least listen to others who have experienced something similar. It’s important to understand that you aren’t alone in your grief.
If you know a friend who went through something similar, ask them if they would like to meet up and talk about it. Sharing your grief with others allows you to vent and relieve yourself of the hurt.
Here is a helpful list of grief resources to find yourself a community, or just to hang out like a fly on the wall.
Talk to your family and friends.
Taking time for yourself is important during times of grief. However, spending time with family and friends may keep a sense of normalcy in your life.
After all, I would say most people feel more comfortable speaking with their family members and friends than speaking with a stranger. In addition, talking about the loss may help you accept your feelings.
Talk to a professional.
Therapy is often thrown under a negative light in our society and, unfortunately, this causes many people to avoid going. Therapy can be highly beneficial for people who are overwhelmed with grief or are having a difficult time coping. As someone who went to therapy for half a year, I’ll say that the right therapist can help in so many ways.
Professional help should definitely be sought if the bereaved is abusing drugs or alcohol or is contemplating suicide. Seeking professional help is also a good idea if the bereaved has a loss of appetite, isn’t sleeping, or is oversleeping.
If you feel a need for more information, getting involved is a way to meet this need and may help you sail through the grieving process.
Whether it’s helping plan a funeral or helping investigators find a murderer, many people cope better when they are involved. Others, however, find it more difficult to cope when they are involved as it may serve as a reminder that their loved one is gone forever.
Try to accept your feelings.
We’re taught at a young age that there are negative emotions that should never be expressed. We’re also taught that there are right and wrong ways to grieve. This is absolutely false.
I read an article the other day that talked about grief and how it’s such a strange experience.
- Some people cry.
- Some people get angry.
- Some people feel nothing at all.
- Some people even smile.
If you can’t learn to accept the way you feel, the grieving process will be delayed.
Try to engage in regular activities.
It took my grandmother many months before she was back to doing her daily routines. For a long time, I saw her struggle to eat properly, to smile, and to do what she loved most— spending time with family. In the end, being alone helped her cope with her grief.
If you need to drop everything for a while, that’s OK. It’s extremely important that you continue to take care of your mental health though. Others find it comforting to hang out with friends and continue with their daily routines, which is also another acceptable way to cope with grief.
There will never be a formula for dealing with grief, especially when losing someone unexpectedly.
It’s important to find ways to remember the deceased that will allow you to peacefully move on and live the life you were meant to live.
Death can seem to be an evil demon we all encounter throughout our lives. But there can be light that comes from such darkness. You may have to continue searching for it.